Dave Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a frenetic, darkly humorous, and tragic memoir, is a story about rebuilding. After both of his parents die when he is twenty-one, Dave is charged with caring for Toph, his precocious 7-year-old brother. He and Toph move to Berkeley where Dave starts a magazine and auditions for an MTV show. Throughout the memoir, Dave struggles to be both a parent and a brother while trying to understand tragedies in his life and his friends’ lives.
From here on out, I’ll refer to Dave Eggers as “Dave” when referring to his character in HWOSG and “Eggers” when referring to him as the author, to avoid conflating the two.
When Dave is trying out for MTV’s The Real World, he gives a moving speech about secrets: what secrets are, how giving them away doesn’t devalue them, how secrets don’t alter your identity. There are a lot of revealed secrets and personal details in Eggers’ memoir, and much of the memoir deals with the exchange of secrets, the results of sharing, and the understanding and lack of understanding he experiences. He speaks at length about his complete disdain for voyeurs, nosy people, and even well-meaning spectators of tragedy. This inclination towards privacy contrasts with his attraction towards exhibitionism. He acknowledges secrets as a powerful currency, but at the same time, spends freely.
Here he is in an interview trying to get on the MTV show:
“Because secrets do not increase in value if kept in a gore-ian lockbox, because one’s past is either made useful or else mutates and becomes cancerous. We share things for the obvious reasons: it makes us feel un-alone, it spreads the weight over a larger area, it holds the possibility of making our share lighter. And it can work either way – not simply as a pain-relief device, but, in the case of not bad news but good, as a share-the-happy-things-I’ve-seen/lessons-I’ve-learned vehicle. Or as a tool for simple connectivity for its own sake, a testing of waters, a stab at engagement with a mass of strangers.”
For Dave, secrets are a way to connect. That’s the distinction he makes between good listeners and voyeurs: the former understand the importance of connection, and the latter do not. This concept of connection makes one consider the dynamics of disconnection and connection in the reader-writer relationship.
The Reader as Spectator
At times, Dave’s thoughts implicate the reader as a spectator. In the beginning, he expresses his complete hatred for people who look into his family’s windows at his mother, who is dying of cancer. Later on, he becomes frustrated at people who ask him insensitive questions. This anger towards the spectator complicates the reader-writer relationship.
The reader, after all, is effectively looking into the open windows at Eggers’ life by reading his memoir, taking on the role of spectator. The reader has the privileges of distance, privacy, and access to secrets, but initially shares none of Dave’s burden. In the beginning, the reader is a stranger in the street trying to figure something out, the nosy person at a party asking too many questions. But at the end, the reader-spectator becomes closer, more engaged, less strange.
That’s part of the magic of Eggers’ memoir: it opens up the reader-writer relationship through the sharing of secrets. It transforms gawking into understanding; it makes the reader uncomfortable to be comfortable and comfortable to be uncomfortable.
And the coolest part? The secrets don’t become cheaper because of it. The author’s burden is shared with the reader through narrative, and the “secrets” no longer are secrets, but tools of connection, taking on agency and purpose.