Friday, January 19, 2007

Hazards of contrarianism

Anyone who has had the pleasure of my company for any extended period of time knows that I am at heart a contrarian. Whenever I hear a statement of opinion (especially something that seems to represent conventional wisdom or accepted taste) my automatic reaction is to take the opposing side and try to poke a hole in the argument through whatever methods possible. Which means that I tend to get into pointlessly detailed and niggling arguments over points of questionable importance. Some people indulge me in this, and we have loads of fun. Most other (sane?) people just get annoyed by it.

This habit drives me towards sometimes controversial opinions on pop culture (Kill Bill is a boring movie, dammit), and makes me prone to reviews phrased in the form of "It's a good movie, despite all the people who say it's a good movie" (specific phrasing courtesy of The Hired Tongue, but I've had the approach for eons).

All of which is by way of mentioning that I recently read "A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius" by David Eggers, which is a book that is intentionally designed to drive people like me crazy. I mean, it's a good book, but as I read it I can't help but think "Well, that was sad, sure, but hardly heartbreaking," or "Genius is such a strong word...". It was compounded by the fact that Mr. Eggers goes out of his way to discuss this very point in his acknowledgments section (which is by far the most awesome part of the book). So now I can't figure out how far to recurse -- do I take the title at its word and form my opinion around how the book isn't as great as it says it is? Or do I take the self-mocking introduction at its word and think that it's actually a really decent book? Or do I take the fact that he says he's only pretending to be self-mocking and actually sort of feels that way and...

OK, so it's not really a big deal, and I feel maybe a little bit silly about it, but it was on my mind. I didn't get to the end of Infinite Jest and say "Hey, this book had an ending! What a ripoff!" I know people who seem to totally lack the irony gene, though; people who can drink a bottle of Arrogant Bastard beer and say that they don't like it, even though the back of the bottle says that they probably won't like it! What's up with that? How can people do that? I just don't get it.


  1. If it makes you feel any better, I too agree that Kill Bill was a boring movie and in all actuality it took me starting and stopping "A Heartbreaking work of staggering genius" I think at least three times before I got through it, which means it probably wasn't as "genius" as everyone claims. Don't change...I like your opinionated-ness, just the way it is.

  2. :-) I actually liked Heartbreaking Work a fair amount (although the rest of the book didn't hold a candle to the Acknowledgements section). I don't think I've actually ever read a review of it, so I have no idea what the hive mind has to say.

  3. First- Kill Bill Rocks, you philistines ;-)
    Second- You've made me really want to read Heartbreaking Work, though I'm pretty sure that the title has always supposed to have been ironic.
    Third- It's actually a Faulkner quote- "Shakespeare is actually quite good, despite all the people who say he's quite good." One of my favorite quotes ever.
    Fourth- The ultimate hipster problem is that no matter how consistently ironic and contrarian you try to be, you'll eventually end up actually being sincere about something. But where that "something" is- ah, there's the rub.

  4. 1. Large swaths of Kill Bill do indeed rock. They are dwarfed, though, by the overwhelmingly boring final fight scene.

    2/4. It's true that habitual irony trends towards sincerity, however unintentional. Eggers covers this in his acknowledgments section, talking about the choice of his book and how it was arbitrarily picked from a list of similarly random titles (another one was something like "Life Lessons From an Old Black Man in a Diner"). But that simultaneously, he was aware of the implication of the title and that maybe he does feel in a little bit after all. Anyway, it's his self-awareness of the problem of sincerity vs. irony that was really what I was trying to get to in my post and how irksome it was to me.

    Obviously I'm playing this up (ever so slightly), but it was still there...

    3. I knew it wasn't your quote, but you were the one I first heard it from. Thanks for the source!

  5. Back when it was published, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was referred to in reviews as "AHWOSG." This always bothered me because I thought you were supposed to leave out articles and prepositions in an acronym, but "HWSG" lacks the same punch the title brings to the table, and "AHWOSG" is at least long.

    If I remember correctly, the reviews were all fairly positive, most just thrilled that someone was doing something new and interesting with fiction as a genre. I think the title is ironic, but not directly self-referentially so. I think that Dave Eggers has faced the same problem as many bright, innovative people: ridiculous expectations. I've always imagined that at some point in the writing process, when he told a friend or aquaintance about his subject matter, they said - all too sincerely - "Oh Dave, I'm sure it will be just heartbreaking, a work of genius," or something along those lines. I can't imagine ever feeling like I could live up to that kind of expectation. And that's what the book is about: it's about his struggle with the expectation that he'll fail or give up with his brother, that he's too young, that these crazy projects he embarks upon (the magazine, for instance) are doomed to fall apart at the seams. And he talks about his moments of self doubt and the stupid, embarassing, tard-willy-inspiring things that he does out of bravado and fear and trying to be the man that everyone has hinted he could be. I think that the title is his way of saying, "Okay, here's what I was set up for and when it's spelled out it's clearly an impossible standard but I'm going for it." I think that ultimately it refers to himself: he is a genius (in my opinion), his story is heartbreaking because of all the ways he sets himself up for disappointment, and what's staggering is that he took all of this on when he was 19. And, well, he's quite a piece of work. ;)

    For my birthday about three years ago, Pete surprised me with "tickets to a show" that turned out to be Dave Eggers speaking at the Aladin theater. And when you see him, it's so clear what the deal is. I bet that the acknowledgments are arguably the best part (I would totally agree with you, Joseph, on that count) is because it was the part that was the most fun. Eggers is all about messing with the details. He has a writing program for disadvantaged kids called 826 Valencia that only takes a handful of adolescents and then works very closely with them. McSweeney's takes on a new form every other installment. Next to 826 Valencia (the one in SF; I think there's one in NY too now) there is a Pirate Shop, filled with pirating supplies. This is something he and his friend Dave Kneebones just run because, dude, who wouldn't want to have a pirate shop?

    I have his other books and I've never really gotten into any of them. I got bored with "You Shall Know Our Velocity," whose gimmick was that it began on the cover. I haven't managed to start "How We Are Hungry" because I'm lazy. (Similary I need to read Zadie Smith's "On Beauty" and "The Autograph Man," but haven't gotten around to it. Stupid TV.) But I have read a lot of the stuff he's edited. Aside from McSweeney's, there are at least three volumes of "Best American Non-Required Reading" with his fingerprints all over them. And then he has short stories in several collections too. In "McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales," he has a story called "Up The Mountain Coming Down Slowly" that is so completely wonderful. It's not about over coming fear or adversity, although the main character arguably does both. But that's incidental. It's about an improbable adventure that isn't really an adventure in the living because one's day-to-day is one's day-to-day even in extrodinary circumstances.

    His newest book, "What is the What," is a complete departure. Mom can't put it down when she has time to read, but had to stop making time before bed because of the nightmares she was having about living through the conflict in Sudan. I can't wait to read it. The reviews have been amazing.

    BTW, my aunt hated AHWOSG. Just hated it. She and my mother have never been able to talk about it because she felt so viserally that it was a terrible book and mom felt so viserally that it was a beautiful book.

  6. Sydney, your comments are intimidating. I think the comment I'm replying to is longer than my actual post. I could check, I suppose, but I'm lazy.

    If nothing else, I feel like I should probably pick up a copy of The Believer sometime. I've had enough articles from it recommended to me over the years. Plus I want to be all cultured and shit.

  7. Yeah, I swear to God, all my life I've had this problem with verbosity. Thing is: they never seem that long when I'm typing them. Then I post them and HOLY CRAP, I've written another fawking novel. So, um, sorry about that!

  8. So, Sydney, I think the implications of your verbosity are obvious.
    You and David Foster Wallace need to have a write-off. You're both seated in front of laptops, and charged to write as much as possible about esoteric, weird, intellectual stuff. Whoever writes the weirdest and most wins. The loser needs to bake the winner a pie.

  9. No, no, don't apologize! I like reading stuff! Also things! It gives me more excuses to not work for a little while!

  10. So this one time there was this awesome literary conference in which there was an awesome write-off: Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie versus Nick Hornby and Dave Eggers. Yes, the Brit Lit Brat Pack (as Pete and I like to call them) + Salman Rushdie, on a stage, crowded around two laptops, co-writing two short stories. Eggers and Horby won; Zadie Smith blamed Rushdie's inability to type, but not in a mean way, in a "I just got to write a short story with Salman Rushdie! Eee!!" kind of way.

    Who are the Brit Lit Brat Pack, you ask? And are they all actually British? Okay, they're pretty much just the four writers I already mentioned. Although I think I'm forgetting someone. Rushdie isn't a full member because he's a different generation, but, as Pete points out, "At least he's English." And Eggers writes a lot of stuff with the others (as in, published in the same anthologies), but he's definitely not English. Oh! And Roddy Doyle! He's in it too! And Michael Chabon, although he's also not English. And maybe Jonathan Lethem, but I haven't read his books either.

    You could argue that there are some Brit Chick Lit authors who are peripheral to this group: I mean, any good Brat Pack has a Molly Ringwald, right? Up for nomination are Helen Fielding and Melissa Bank (although I've not read "A Girl's Guide To Hunting And Fishing" so I don't know if it's actually Chick Lit, British or otherwise, but she shows up in articles about these guys and she's got a story in Hornby's anthology whose procedes go to autism research).

    You could also include Irving Welsh, although I think he's older too. And there are actors who make literary appearances: Colin Firth and Viggo Mortinson. But mostly I like to add them in for sex appeal. Or, as Pete would have you believe, accountant appeal (in Coling Firth's case). Seriously: Colin Firth is hot and Pete is totally jealous.

  11. Jonathan Lethem definitely appears on any list that includes Dave Eggers and Salman Rushdie. Don't think that I've actually read any of the others... Do they go down to pubs in the evenings after they're done writing for the day and do performance authorship or something? That'd be kind of cool.

    And Colin Firth is more than adequately attractive. Not so much my type, but I wouldn't complain if I were locked in a deserted closet with him or something. I mean, I'm sure he's a nice guy and would cooperate to break the door down or pick the lock or something.

  12. Yeah, I don't think Pete's worried about being locked in a closet with Colin Firth. I think Pete's worried that if I think he's hot, and I think Colin Firth is hot, and he thinks Colin FIrth is not hot but rather boring, that it says something about my taste (specifically, that it might not be so good) and, QED, about him. Of course this worry is all based on a faulty premise, namely that Colin Firth isn't hot. Because empirically he is - I think this is the technical term is "smokin.'"

  13. It's almost tax time, and Syd's talkin' about how hot Colin Firth is again. Coincidence? I think not.

  14. Wait, you're saying that if I'm trapped alone in a closet with Colin Firth, he'll do my taxes for me? Oh my God, this is the best fantasy ever! Now I'm going to fantasize about Shirley Manson raking my lawn while Alyson Hannigan waxes my car. (Yeah, that's right, I said "waxes my car". Watcha gonna do about it?)

  15. Dude, Rip: you make it sound like I only talk about how hot Colin Firth is once a year. I think that counts as lying by omission. But just in case you've forgotten about all the other times I've gushed about a certain Englishman's sexitude (um, sorry: a certain other Englishman's sexitude), I'll make sure to speak up more often. Perhaps at random intervals, in the middle of conversation.

    BTW, Shirley Manson and Alyson Hannigan are good choices. Also acceptable: Jenny Lewis' disemboidied voice.

  16. Mmm. Jenny Lewis out of her Rabbit Fur Coat. Delicious.

  17. I agree with a lot of these comments. I love Dave Eggers, but feel conflicted in doing so because he's so trendy and SO overly modern and hip as far as literature goes. I didn't like Heartbreaking Work as much as some others-- I, too, put it down several times for a few weeks at a time. It took me awhile to get through it. However, my faith in him as a writer is unfailing due to his other works.

    If you haven't read his short stories, I highly reccomend you do so. "How We Are Hungry" is a beautiful collection. There are some pieces that are decent at best, but that is totally made up for by absolute masterpieces like "Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly" and "After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned" (by far my favorite).

    What is the What is good so far-- I'm in the middle of it. But what deserves an incredible amount of praise, in my opinion, and doesn't get it, is his other novel, entitled "You Shall Know Our Velocity". Conceptually it's interesting, the story is engaging and offbeat, the main character is lovably strange, and there are some passages in that book that make me gasp, they're so beautiful. Definitely worth reading.

    so, in conclusion-- i agree with the OP. it's hard when you like something that's so hip already! but sometimes you just have to admit that once in awhile, things are popular for a good reason.

  18. Whoa. Zombie thread. Yeah, I keep on meaning to pick up some of his other books, but I've not gotten around to it yet. Busy, busy me. Good to get another recommendation, though.

    I suppose it's not much of a curse, now that I think about it, liking stuff that's actually hip and trendy. I mean, it's good to be cool, right?