Say it with me: Gnarsh!

Okay. I've been working up to this one for a while, and I'm sick and tired of not actually having said it. It's time for What I Like and Do Not Like About Dave Eggers.

First, on the credit side of the ledger. One. Funny. Two. Creative. Three. There is something quite sharp about his self-analysis. The usual critiques of Eggers go something like this: he's horribly manipulative, but he's one step more manipulative than the average media figure. Eggers explicitly anticipates all possible criticisms, all possible objections. He apologizes for countless failings, real and invented, and stares with a harsh eye at his own motivations and ambitions. By doing so, they say, Eggers tries to head off outside criticism. He puts it on paper himself -- and then, rather than trying to counter the objections, lets them stand. It's rhetorical reverse psychology, letting your critics talk themselves to death and crash like waves against an unyielding cliff; anything they might say Eggers has already said, and jujitsued their attacks before they've even begun. The self-referentiality and self-obsession having been revealed merely as literary diversions and the shell game exposed, the meta-critic can sit back and relax with a blanket claim like this one, from Alex Star (writing in The New Republic): "That the author knows his own 'opinion' is false does not make it any more true."

Which really bugs me, in that if people are going to go after Eggers, they ought at least to go after him for the right reasons. And I think it's important to recognize that, as slippery as Eggers may be, the tone of the book is not some kind of long elaborate put-on. His work is of a piece, from Might's "beautiful butterfly, fly free" eulogy for Richard Nixon through the set-piece fabricated interview in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and the McSweeney's antics. It's the art of self-referential humor without ever cracking a smile, humor that never admits the existence of a joke. Eggers fails the two major tests for the usual steotypical "Gen X irony" literary mode. On the one hand, the form of his output could hardly be characterized as defensive detachment; the passages in Genius about his his parents. in particular, should be enough to make clear that Eggers is not about protecting himself by putting an ironic distance between himself and everything. He worries that something of this sort might be happening, as he worries about a great many other things, but the self-belittlement and crossover cultural reference don't have the snarky sarcastic tinge of the defense mechanism. And on the other hand, the continual hollowing-out of anything he sets out, the continual knocking-down of illusions and pretense, the knocking-down of the knocking-down even, takes no particular delight in the crash and clatter. Eggers is no Mark Leyner.

The point is that I think Eggers' writing is entirely truthful, in the sense that he is giving an accurate portrait of what it is like to be Dave Eggers. And I don't think that he's particular unusual in his psychic makeup, just a little sharper than the usual in being willing to probe it, a little more articulate in being able to set down the shifting internal currents of his mind. There is something Montaigne-esque in the quality of Eggers' self-examination: he's more or less what any really good self-examination would wind up with if it refused to exempt itself from examination, and then examined also this refusal and also the sensation of being examined. For starters. Eggers has certain ideas and goals, and has certain raw materials to work with, and what emerges is actually, I think, a pretty complete and wise portrait. He wants to be famous, and certain things have happened in his life, things which he understands really don't "justify" fame under traditional measures. In the process of interrogating what that "justification" consists of (and why those traditional measures of celebrity are bunk, too), he pushes through to a deeper idea, one he drives at strongly in the latter part of the book -- he may not actually be different or distinctive in certain ways, but perhaps through the process of ironic introspection, he can achieve some sort of paradoxical transcendence of fame, he can become the typical-different catalyst for his peers, all of whom are going through similar attempts at self-justification. There's a smack here of what the critic Erich Auerbach referred to as "figural realism" in his discussion of the New Testament: Christ's fleshly suffering is physically real, and the divine message his life represents is embodied in the events of his life, worked out through a direct figuration of an abstract message in very concrete details. Eggers -- who seems a bit fond of the martyr rhetoric now and then -- is going after something similar: he wants his life story to stand in both for the similar life stories of his generation, and also to represent the interconnected collective experience of an abstract "generation," and it will be his own specific life details, striking but not unusual, that turn around and permit him this transubstantiation.

And this may sound like a tall order, but I think Eggers has actually hit upon one of the few genuine ways forward from the cultural context he's inherited. If you sever certain connections between the personal and the societal, if you are, like Eggers and Might magazine, deeply skeptical of idealism (and jealous of the fame it creates, even without creating results), then you are confronting a landscape in which the traditional routes to great importance -- political involvement, large-scale works, or pure artistic creation -- are basically closed off, and something else must take their place as a way of justifying the life of the individual, of reconnecting it to the society. Eggers' claim -- the personal becomes important through a kind of metaphorical representation of shared experiences, becomes important by staring at itself and willing itself into mimetic importance -- is not entirely unreasonable, really. For starters, it's worked -- Eggers is now reasonably well-known and literarily influential largely for the very reasons he pours out in his imagined Real World interview. [By way of comparison, the best other fleshed-out proposal I know of is that of Ann Powers, who's reworked 70's feminism's slogan of "the personal is poltiical" into a cry for modern-day bohemians to engage society at the level of lifestyle and values, to pass their lived experience into the experience of the world through demonstration and emulation.] To this extent, Eggers has something interesting to say, something important to at least consider. It's a response, which is a lot better than most can say.

It's for this reason that I'm really bothered by Eggers' recent calls for "less malice," when it comes to things like people putting up parody websites, or writing in the mock style of Dave Eggers, or publishing in national magazines setting-things-straight messages obatained from his sister but later regretted and sorta-kinda-retracted by that same sister. To Eggers, these things are in the same ballpark as his Might faking of the death of Adam Rich, an episode Eggers puts himself under the microsope for, and finds himself lacking. Dumb and mean back then, and he's learned better since then, so please don't do it now. A lot of people don't buy this -- what's sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose -- and, after all, isn't Eggers now famous precisely for tricks like this? One of the more famous pieces from the McSweeney's website, after all, was the classic Jedediah in Love, which gave Jed Purdy a much rougher treatment than most of what Eggers has been exposed to. So Eggers is being a two-faced hypocrite, no? He's using that self-criticism-as-self-defence technique, vaccinating himself, admitting the wrong of past actions only now that he's on the other end of the stick?

Well, actually, I'm with Eggers on this one. Or rather, I'm willing to take his call for niceness -- as much as it reminds me, in unpleasant ways, of David Foster Wallace's far more disingenuous (or so I think) call for sincerity -- at face value. And in that modal universe, where one starts from the premise that Eggers wants people to be gentler and that they should be, well, then, Eggers' skewering of his former self is perfectly reasonable, and he gives himself the grilling he deserves. As for more recent transgressions, well, the evidence is a bit more ambiguous, although McSweeney's is a net positive force for niceness and unaffectation, and the less kind pieces aren't actually by Eggers himself, and, well, if and when we catch Eggers being mean himself, then we can call him on inconsistency. After all, if we're going to beat people into consistency, there are two ends that need to be forced into alignment, and we could as reasonably choose the one as the other.

That said, I think that Eggers' anti-malice manifesto does fall apart, at least as he usually applies it, that is, to writings about himself and about his writings. I think he's surrendered the right to complain about such treatment, for reasons deeply intrinsic to his subject matter. Eggers is not vulnerable just because he writes about himself. So does every autobiographer. He is not vulnerable just because he wants to be famous, or because he's been snide and snarky in the pursuit of fame. So nu, we're going to all be completely anonymous and never say things that are funny and edgy? And he's not vulnerable just for writing a deeply self-referential book that breaks conventions of the book form and then holds those very deviations up for ridicule of their own. There are plenty of wonderful such books -- House of Leaves amd The Testament of Yves Gundron spring to mind as excellent recent examples -- and I deeply love a literary culture complex and self-aware enough to produce them. No, Eggers has dug himself into a hole because he does all of these at once, in a profoundly unitary way.

That is, Eggers' subject is Eggers himself, but more specifically, he writes about his desire to mold his own life into a shining symbol of paramount importance. But more than that, he wants to make himself important because of this self-analysis, he wants to turn the undeserving events of his existence into legend by reflecting them upon themselves, he wants to make his everyday actions sing with godlike radiance, and he's going to do this by staring mercilessly at Dave Eggers and setting that hall of mirrors spinning faster and faster until it shines with an inner light. And then he wants this "lattice," the ill-defined network of people and doings that will surround him and center upon him and allow him to know himself as it becomes aware of itself through him, he wants this lattice to buzz with the tidbits he shoots off, the tidbits that will have to come from his introspection and self-creating desires for fame and importance, precisely because he will openly admit that even his parents' deaths and his brother's entire existence, in some sense, are the fuel for the Eggers Rocket, but not its essence, and what he has to say is ultimately not about them. It's about him, but more than that, it's about him thinking about himself.

That said, this is what really annoys me: it's impossible to actually engage with Eggers' thinking, to add something more to what he says and extend it, without immediately brushing up against this suddenly forbidden territory of "meanness." Having made his particular claims, he's in some sense turned his back on the actual message of his book. His more recent output -- the book tour, the occasional postings on the site, that absolutely terrifying interview with the Harvard Advocate -- has focused on his post-fame life, on the nature of "selling out" and dealing with sudden success. Legitimate topics, surely, but his autobiography has subtly shifted from being a book that says something, whose words relate to real life, into an artifact, an agent of outside forces, something which exists and has properties but does not actually mean something. For this, I dislike Dave Eggers, because just about anyone can write about selling out, and it's been proven now that McSweeney's pieces can be cranked out by non-McSweeney's people, but Dave Eggers, to the extent that he was writing his Dave Eggers spiel, had something to say that nobody else was saying, and now he's trying to avoid the implications of his own ideas.

Now, on some level, this is fine, in that the idea of living in a Dave Eggers-ocracy, of going to Dave Eggers salons and reading the latest magazines of Dave Eggers criticism and Dave Eggers interior design and Dave Eggers TV schedules, is actually only marginally less horrifying than the idea of living in any other X-ocracy, for arbitrarily chosen X. But, to the extent that Eggers was advancing the world of arts and letters and ideas in some genuinely new directions, it's disenheartening to see even him not following through on those ideas. At the very least, he was raising some of the right questions, about engagement with the world and the justification of the life of an individual in an age that valorizes the individual to the point of paradoxically ruining that individual's ability to stand for anything larger than itself. The question of selling out doesn't concern me so much; I think that "selling out," like "political correctness," is one of those terms such that anyone who uses them -- whether for or against -- is automatically wrong. More specifically, given what I see as the strong psychic truth of Eggers self-portrait and his self-critique, I don't think "selling out" is even an interesting or useful axis to judge him against. It's a sideline, a distraction, and I wish the Saadi Soudavars and Alex Stars of this world would stop alternately going after him and sucking up to him over these irrelevancies, because if they did, we might actually be able to get some more interesting answers out of Eggers, might be able to sit down and actually have a real conversation about things that matter. Eggers may be wrong, but wrong is still a hell of a lot closer to the target than most of the malarkey the last decade has seen.