You Shall Know Our Velocity, 2002
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, 2000
The Best American Nonrequired Reading, 2002
David (Dave) Eggers became a household name after the enormous success of his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Before long, he parlayed his popularity (and royalties) into starting a literary press that produced a quarterly magazine (McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern) as well as hardback literary books, often of the experimental variety (McSweeney’s Books).
The third of four children, Eggers was born in 1970 in Boston and raised by his parents in the prestigious Lake Forest suburb of Chicago. Eggers’s father was an attorney and his mother a teacher. While attending college at the University of Illinois in 1991, twenty-one-year-old Eggers learned that his mother was dying of stomach cancer, and after returning home for winter break he stayed to help care for her. As detailed in Eggers’s memoir, the decline of his mother was slow and painful, and the tension caused by her suffering affected the entire family. While steeling themselves for their mother’s death, however, the Eggers siblings were shocked by the sudden death of their father in November, 1991, from lung cancer. Less than two months later, Eggers’s mother had also passed away, and the siblings–twenty-four-year-old Bill, twenty-three-year-old Beth, and Eggers–were faced with the question of raising their brother Toph (short for Christopher), who was about to turn eight years old.
Before long, it was decided that Beth would return to Berkeley, California, to attend law school, and that Eggers and Toph would live in San Francisco. Bill would soon move to California as well. Not surprisingly for a young man of college age, Eggers had a hard time adjusting to a life centered upon raising an eight-year-old. In addition to the new responsibilities this brought, he used a sizable portion of his inheritance to help found Might magazine in 1994 with his Lake Forest friends David Moodie and Marny Requa, who had also moved to San Francisco. Might published only sixteen issues and never exceeded a circulation of thirty thousand, but it garnered a cult following and a reputation for wit, savvy media satire, and irreverence. Might gained national notoriety when it printed a eulogy for former child television star Adam Rich (who played the youngest son on Eight Is Enough) despite the fact that Rich had not actually died.
By 1997, however, the magazine had folded, and Eggers was finally able to make progress on his memoir, the ironically titled A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The book told the story of his life with Toph, the rise and fall of Might, Eggers’s attempts to land a spot on MTV network’s reality show The Real World, and Eggers’s struggles to recover from the death of his parents. More important, Eggers showed his allegiance to postmodern culture, as defined by writers like David Foster Wallace, by framing the memoir in various innovative and humorous ways. The copyright page of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius contains a long and satirical digression on whether the work is nonfiction or fiction, a scale rating the author’s sexuality, and an accounting of the true power of Simon and Schuster, the publishers. The acknowledgments section is more than twenty pages long. Throughout the book, Eggers repeatedly steps back from the story being told in the memoir to analyze both the events being related and his methods, motives, and techniques in relating them.
As a result of his work with Might and appearances in other counterculture media like the Web journal Salon.com, Eggers was able to place his book with Simon and Schuster for the reported advance (particularly large for a first-time author) of $100,000. The poignancy of the story, combined with Eggers’s satirical and self-conscious shirking of convention, won excellent reviews from publications including The New York Times Book Review, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Time. Both the hardback and paperback editions of the book were listed as The New York Times nonfiction best-sellers, and the paperback eventually climbed to first on the list. Furthermore, The New York Times listed A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius as one of the best books of 2000.
Eggers capitalized on the success of his memoir by launching the literary magazine McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern (also known as McSweeney’s) before A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius had even seen publication. McSweeney’s is published as a hardbound quarterly journal largely given to printing postmodern and experimental literature; almost immediately, writers with countercultural cachet such as Rick Moody, David Foster Wallace, and George Saunders began publishing in McSweeney’s. Eggers also launched a Web site, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency (www.McSweeneys.net), that published even more experimental material.
Eggers’s popularity has resulted in the inevitable backlash; Web sites dedicated to jokes or less than flattering stories about him proliferated. Perhaps surprised by his quick ascension to fame, Eggers has zealously guarded the privacy he has left, only giving interviews via e-mail and publicly trading insults with reporters. His status continues to grow, aided in part by his actions at readings and benefits. At one reading, Eggers collected a group of listeners onto a bus and conveyed them to a pool hall for the evening. At a cancer benefit in Denver, Eggers shocked the audience by making a pledge of $100,000 to the Webb-Waring Institute for Cancer, Aging, and Antioxidant Research. He sold the film rights for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius to New Line Pictures in 2001 for a reported two million dollars and has used the money to further his publishing interests. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his brother Toph.