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Lee Siegel Worth Reading

All right, all right, let's just get this over with: How strange for one man to think that he could write the story of another man, a real living man who is perfectly capable of telling his story himself–and then … Read More

By / April 23, 2007

All right, all right, let's just get this over with:

How strange for one man to think that he could write the story of another man, a real living man who is perfectly capable of telling his story himself–and then call it an autobiography. It is just one more instance of the accelerating mash-up of truth and falsehood in the culture, which mirrors and–who knows?–maybe even enables the manipulation of truth in politics.

Thus spake Sprezzatura, and believe you me, the comment thread of this TNR hatchet-job on Dave Eggers has fast degenerated into the inevitable guessing game of who those "Welcome back, Lee Siegel" posters really are… David Foster Wallace unspooling his funniest postmodern fabric yet? Eggers himself, acceding to the critic's main point that childlike self-deprecation is not the hallmark of serious art, but rather a six-figure advance wrapped in Linus' safety blanket? Who knows: Maybe Lee's haunting the thread himself again, this time annihilating his own stuff just to throw those wily n+1 bastards off the scent.

Now for serious business: Siegel is on-target with this piece. I came close to demanding my money back after reading Eggers' You Shall Know Our Velocity!, with its blank pages and lame insert photography and completely unlikable protagonists. (If only I'd been able to find the Icelandic MySpace page that must handle McSweeney's refunds…)

"Dude, we're in Africa. Africa!" I vaguely remember as an actual line of dialogue from YSKOS, or the gist of it, anyway. This rather scuttles Siegel's point about Eggers' "post-colonial arrogance" in thinking he'd be able to tell the part-fabricated story of a survivor of Sudanese genocide. It's not post-colonialism or arrogance that's Eggers' problem: it's the gee-whiz sense of wonderment he should have outgrown in his twenties coupled with a sickly-sentimental condescension that he displays towards his all his narrative victims, himself especially and foremost.

Siegel's ill-chosen comparison to Martin Amis is rather revealing, then:.House of Meetings excelled at a kind of filigreed human misery because its narrator had to have developed a carapace against the horrors of the Stalinist gulag and was therefore able to write about it with a molten temperature that devours euphemism and moral distancing techniques such as the face-kicking passage from What is the What Siegel excerpts. House of Meetings was also a more challenging book because that narrator was a horrible human being who still managed to come off as pitiable. Imagine Eggers' trying his hand at depicting villainy or moral ambiguity and you see why he's a failure as a novelist.

I once heard an editor of a popular political magazine describe Eggers as a "professional orphan," a judgment I thought harsh at the time. Now I'm not so sure. No doubt his very real and poignantly rendered suffering in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was rooted in the months-apart loss of both his parents, and the burden of acting a surrogate father to his brother. However, Eggers has not evolved as a writer since then, nor has his ken shown any signs of widening. Oliver Twist has not let go of the pen that tells the same story of pummeled and robbed youth. He's professed a wide reading and an assimilation of good influences (even though the man who thinks Henderson the Rain King is Bellow's best novel is probably going to want to write about Africa — Africa! — to his own peril), but Eggers hasn't yet realized that his true metier is for salvation, not fiction.

Let Eggers do his good works in peace. Let him save the children and the shelf space at the same time.

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