I tried to ignore the Dave Eggers cult when it began six or eight years ago. Our shared Gen X-ness made me too queasy to read his big hit, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and his success made me sullen. I didn’t care for the footnoted cutesiness of most things he touched: the magazine excerpts I’d seen, the McSweeney’s website, the superhero supply store.* At a time when I was writing instruction manuals for a living, I didn’t want to pay to read them in his memoir.
But last week I got a free ticket to “An Evening With Dave Eggers and Friends” at Stanford. Stanford is about an hour south of San Francisco, and in the parallel biography of my fantasy life it’s where I went to college. I’d driven by on tradeshow trips, but never visited the campus, so I offered to be my coworker Monika’s navigator in exchange for a ride.
Eggers had brought his filmmaker pals Spike Jonze and David O. Russell along, as well as a stand-up comedian from the _King of Queens_. He had to explain himself to an audience that was half gray-haired season ticket holders and half Eggerheads, and he managed it with charm. He told the story of his brush with Homeland Security, after he’d left his notebook on a plane on the way to cover the Republican Convention (where his brother worked as a Republican advisor). He pitched the shop he had opened when the landlord insisted his after-school tutoring center should be a store:
“We are the only independent, full-service pirate supply store in the whole Bay Area, and I encourage you to give us a try. We have eyepatches, hooks, booty, casks, glass eyes, lard—whatever you need, we can supply your pirating requirements. Some of the local Palo Alto pirate places will try to compete on price, but they just can’t match the quality and the choice. Just take planks. Their planks are plywood. Now, that’s fine if you’re just looking for a one-time-use thing, but if you count on your planks, you need to come to the full-service specialists…”
He explained why he thought politics mattered. He’s older than me, but he’s still the kind of fine young man who sends my precocious old-biddy side off into daydreams of my-son-the-novelist.
Spike Jonze showed a documentary he’d made of Al Gore just before the 2000 Democratic Primary. Gore had liked Being John Malkovich and invited him to his home in Tennessee to follow the family for a day. Gore seemed dorky, droll, and real–and so despairing of his uptight public posture that he was ready to pay consultants to fake another Al. His daughters teased him for his public stiffness, and for his habit of demanding full attention for every movie DVD they watched.
“Someone goes to the bathroom, and he _pauses_ it. Everyone has to sit there. And then you hear, ‘Karenna? Karenna?’ ‘Dad, I’m in the bathroom.‘”
“I just like to pay attention,” he said, looking as pleased as any father to have the attention of his grown-up girls. He sorted through the stack of film choices for that evening, and held up a copy of The Straight Story, David Lynch’s laconic documentary about a man who crosses the country on a lawnmower. “I recommend this one,” he said. Then he held up The Klumps and made a face. Clinton would never be caught on camera revealing such tastes, but Gore seemed unguarded. “Here’s a painting Tipper did,” he announced, and Tipper gave a panicky laugh to see Spike Jonze filming her naked, pregnant self-portrait. “Al!”
In the evening, Jonze joined them on the helicopter ride to their last family vacation before the campaign began in earnest. Gore body-surfed in the Carolina waves, and waded out for another on-camera chat. “Holy shit,” said the woman next to me at the sight of the Veep’s dripping torso.
I envied the closeness of four generations of Gores, even if he insisted on snogging Tipper to prove it. He spoke simply about how hard he found the soundbite world of campaigns, and for his sake I wished the election could have been called based on who had raised better daughters.
In the last scene, Gore sat in his den, talking about a hometown friend.
“A fine man. Just a real fine person. Rock solid. Smart.” When Gore went off to Vietnam his buddy started to send letters, and Gore realized for the first time he could hardly write. Couldn’t spell; poor grammar; poor expression. His face worked as he remembered the letters. “And I just knew that that was going to affect him, you know, getting a job, in the business world, everything. He was a fine person, but this was going to stand in his way. And I felt, America should _work_ for guys like that, stand-up guys. We had to do something to fix education, so that he’d have a chance.”
Off-camera, Spike Jonze squeaked another question. Gore said he was exhausted, had to go to bed now.
The cluelessness of some over-intelligent men intrigues me. Did Gore have any sense of who he was talking to as he fretted for the friend who couldn’t spell? Spike Jonze could barely string a sentence together, let alone punctuate it on paper, but he’s done extravagantly well in a visual era that he helped to shape.
As the film ended, he came on stage to discuss it–and couldn’t. Eggers had asked for a show of hands to see whether people thought this rare chance to see Gore’s humanity might have swung the election. (The documentary was never shown.) Then he asked Spike Jonze what he thought. “Well, I dunno. I just do stuff that interests me,” he mumbled to almost every question. Huddling in his hoodie, Jonze came across as shifty and arrested, a dead ringer for the Giovanni Ribisi character in Lost in Translation. And yet with his music videos, his movies, and even Jackass, he’s given a vocabulary of images to a whole generation. He’s more of our time than I am, and I wish I could understand his language better.
Monika had once been on a marketing team that had hired him to direct an ad. “They’d ask him about the storyboard, and he’d start a food fight,” she whispered. On stage, Eggers worked desperately to start a conversation, and we stared at the giant holes in his shoes.