A heartbreaking work of death and embarrassment

A man in his 30s sits down to write his autobiography. He knows that doing so is a rather silly proposition. After all, what does a man in his 30s know? What has he lived through worth retelling? What experiences can he recount, what knowledge can he impart, that others will find meaningful or useful? So he sits there for a while, ponders the blank sheet before him, and begins furiously scribbling all the reasons no one will care about his life story. He then decides to include these 30 or so pages at the beginning of his autobiography -- not so much to apologize for thinking he's cool or interesting enough to merit being the subject of his own book, but to create enough ironic distance from the subject to let people know that he knows what he's doing is, well, rather silly. See, it's a joke...and it's not. (See the section about "the knowingness about the book's self-conscious aspect," page xxvi.)

You must understand that this man, being in his 30s and well-educated and media-wise, knows there is nothing more pathetic in this world than an "artist" who wastes other people's time by recounting his tales of woe and misery. But still, he has convinced himself -- despite the taunting of friends who find him "narcissistic" -- that, yeah, the world does need one more story about dead mothers and absent fathers and tragic-twisted-abandoned-dead siblings. And if the world doesn't, then the author does, which is the whole damned point. (See the section about "memoir as act of self-destruction," page xxx.)

It pays to be young, tragic, and talented in the '00s. A couple of years ago, perhaps, our generation frowned upon the lay-me-bare memoir or the confessional song. The mere mention of such things conjured horrible images of James Taylor turning his heroin addiction into nursery rhymes or Elizabeth Wurtzel dining on Prozac while doing a Butthole Surfer behind a Deep Ellum club. The notion of someone telling all held all the allure of a stranger sitting down next to you at a bar, spilling his guts as the bartender yelled, "Last call!" Now, look around you: They won't shut up. Suddenly, our tight-lipped generation, weaned on irony and between-the-quotation-marks detachment, can't stop talking about our agony, our heartbreak, our Mommys and Daddys. Who needs therapy when there's a computer or a microphone or a camera waiting to document your every word and whimper? An analyst? Dude, try an audience.

Look no further than your TV set: There's Christopher Titus, the thirtyish Los Angeles-based stand-up whose new self-titled Fox series chronicles "the heartbreakingly hilarious world of his dysfunctional family," which consists of an alcoholic dad and a mentally ill mother confined to the "wacko basket." Or take Dave Eggers, author of the much-lauded A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The former Might magazine founder and McSweeney's editor's autobiography recounts his family's tragedies (Eggers lost both his parents within five months to cancer), how he was forced to raise his 8-year-old brother pretty much by himself, and how he went on to hang with the leading postmodern (i.e., footnote-fetishistic) authors of his me-so-smart generation. The book, which does indeed feature introductory sections with such titles as "The telling the world of suffering as means of flushing or at least diluting of pain aspect," comes complete with a thematic diagram that begins with "THE DEATHS." It then allows you to choose two separate paths, one of which deals with "Much thinking about the triumph of the human spirit," while the other offers "Much thinking about the inevitability of decay, and early and random death and the short life of anything real or beautiful." (Laughter and tears! Bring on the movie!)

Beneath that, perhaps, should be a picture of Mark Oliver Everett, a Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter whose last album, 1998's electro-shock blues, and new album, Daisies of the Galaxy, chronicle how he has spent the last handful of years dealing with his mother's death (again, from cancer) and his sister's mental illness and suicide, and how he, at the tender age of 36, is the sole surviving member of his family. You do not need to struggle to decipher Everett's albums -- all recorded under the name E and released under the name the eels -- because the man hides nothing. His language is so plain, Raymond Carver's novels read like binary code in comparison; the music, which ranges from a lone distorted guitar to an emotive string section, also doesn't conceal a single feeling. Then there are the song titles from electro-shock blues: "Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor," "Going to Your Funeral Part I," and "Hospital Food."

Sometimes, Everett will slip into character: He is Elizabeth, singing about how "waking up is harder when you wanna die." More often, he is just the observer, the last man standing: "Going to your funeral now and feeling I could scream / Everything goes away." Parts of it are morbid; others, almost funny. More often, it's a little bit of both: "Grandpa's happy watching video porn with the closed caption on / Father knows best about suicide and smack." Everett even now can't understand why people like to describe electro-shock blues as "depressing." He insists it's an upbeat record about how when there's nothing left to lose, the only thing left is hope.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky