The post-modern way of grieving

<i>A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius</i> by Dave Eggers (Picador, &pound;14.99)
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The Independent Culture

In his mixture of independence and illegitimacy, the figure of the orphan has provided a potent voice for the American experience. Spawned and spurned by the parent culture of Europe, America has responded by embracing its bastards to create a lineage of abandoned survivors. Mark Twain was the master of this motif, using the agile simplicity of Tom and Huck's narratives to expose the most uncivilised aspects of their "sivilisin" society.

In his mixture of independence and illegitimacy, the figure of the orphan has provided a potent voice for the American experience. Spawned and spurned by the parent culture of Europe, America has responded by embracing its bastards to create a lineage of abandoned survivors. Mark Twain was the master of this motif, using the agile simplicity of Tom and Huck's narratives to expose the most uncivilised aspects of their "sivilisin" society.

Dave Eggers' fictionalised memoirs transform this idea into a lived experience. In his mid-twenties, Eggers lost both parents within a month. While his mother was being slowly devoured by stomach cancer, his father died with abrupt brutality. The woman whose funeral he had been expecting thus became a mourner at her own husband's. It is like a ghost being party to its own cremation.

When she dies three weeks later, her death is transformed into grotesque déjà vu. The bereavement script is messed up. Death has lost the plot. It is left to Eggers to rescue the narrative from its farcical chronology.

He does so by welding the pastiche of a Bildungsroman, a novel of growing-up, on to the authenticity of his loss. He begins by laying down a few "Rules and Suggestions For Enjoyment of This Book". These include skipping sections that we may find over-indulgent, ignoring the list of acknowledgments, and even stopping at page 109. This is a cool ploy, a defiant double-bluff that succeeds in heightening our attention. His technique is to challenge our points of sympathy, to block off those routes where reader and writer are expected to bond.

He recoils from any friends who express condolences, yet fumes with hatred at those who do not offer them. He invites us into his torment, only to rage and scoff at our solemnity. His aim is to deconstruct the received wisdom about death, to parody and lay bare the platitudinous nature of sincerity. This is Blake Morrison's book on his father as spun around by Generation X, a post-modern elegy that ironises its song even as it sings it.

It also falls to Eggers to become guardian of his nine-year-old brother, Christopher. Here he occasionally drops his guard, his prose intoxicated by the robust energy of his new-found "son". Not that he plays the doting parent, but rather that "Toph" allows him the emotional inconsistency denied by his earnest contemporaries. God saves Eggers from reasonable people, and if He can't do it, then his fellow-orphan can.

He takes a perverse delight in lying to his friends (and us?) about Toph's development. At times he has gone hitchhiking to Nebraska, at others he is housebound with a broken leg. Eggers works his single parenthood for all it's worth - chat-up line, late-for-work excuse, sympathy shag when he can get it. He is brazenly candid about his lack of candour, unashamedly honest about his lying. Here is a reliable narrator of unreliable narratives - someone who realises that each of his fictions contains an emotional truth.

A largish section concerns Eggers' attempt to star on MTV's The Real World - a fly-on-the-wall documentary following a group of twentysomething Californians. He transcribes his initial interview with the producer. When asked if he feels awkward about exploiting his family tragedy, he replies: "None of this is mine... His death and what he's done are not mine... It is everyone's... Take it from me... Make it useful." The interview may never have taken place, but his account does. This is the real world, the one that is authored and edited, in which Eggers has no choice but to be an actor and we no choice but to be his audience. Language, he suggests, makes voyeurs of us all.

With such a title, Eggers is setting himself up for the easy put-down. Yet amid the hubris and hyperbole can be found the modest touch of the pathetic pun. For it is Eggers who is sta(E)ggering, in every register of the word. He slouches, he stumbles, drunk with the enormity of his (he)artbreak. He is a writer as tender as he is playful: a man who remembers everything, whether it happened or not.

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