This is a story about boxes. In the world headquarters of the unorthodox literary journal McSweeney's--a Brooklyn, N.Y., duplex apartment strewn with printouts, antique books and sporting goods--Dave Eggers is considering the structural integrity of a Dunkin' Donuts box. There's been a snag with issue No. 4, consisting of 14 exquisitely designed miniature books. It's supposed to come in a sturdy custom box, but the prototype won't close, and the printer--which is, no kidding, in Iceland--is scrambling for a replacement. Now, say editor Eggers and editor at large Sean Wilsey, munching on doughnuts, they can't look at a box without thinking about the minutiae of its construction. "That's the box we're going to end up with," jokes Eggers, pointing at the flimsy container for breakfast pastry.
One can safely assume that such a conversation has never been held in the offices of Vogue. But if this is not the stuff of big-time publishing, idiosyncrasy has been a theme of Eggers' career--and it's manifest as well in his unusual forthcoming memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Simon & Schuster; 375 pages; $23), whose playful, reflexive title and prose belie its painful family story.
Eggers, 29, is not the first person you'd expect to produce a touching memoir, perhaps the least cool thing a young editor could do. In the mid-'90s he edited the San Francisco magazine Might, known for satiric stunts like its hoax faking the demise of Eight Is Enough star Adam Rich. The shoestring operation went bust in 1997, but Eggers landed at Esquire (he also published a dispatch on Cuba in TIME last year). The job left him "burned out," he says, on cheesecake photos, service journalism and celebrity doings. His next project was so retro it's hip: an idiosyncratic literary journal, a magazine that is not a magazine.
Formatted like a 19th century journal, with dense text and quaint line drawings, McSweeney's (whose print run is now up to 12,000) selects pieces too esoteric, untimely or otherwise uncommercial to make the glossies--experimental fiction, absurdist humor and erudite essays, like a piece on a War of 1812 veteran who believed the earth was hollow and contained habitable worlds within. Like the New Yorker before it became topical and buzz crazy, McSweeney's gives writers the time and space to indulge their interests.
The drawback: no one, staff or writer, gets paid. Yet Eggers has lassoed literary stars like David Foster Wallace and Rick Moody. In the new issue, he even enlisted authors to design their own book covers. (A Denis Johnson play bears a cartoon by the author's son.) Because of the box and other doodads--heavy paper, color foldouts--the issue costs $22, but Eggers, who has worked as a designer (and insisted on designing his memoir), argues, "People don't go to a bookstore looking for a cheap and ugly thing." McSweeney's contributor Sarah Vowell says Eggers' art background shows in both the physical journal and its self-aware marginalia (for example, its website, mcsweeneys.net offers reviewers a list of phrases--"precious, inconsequential, pointless"--to describe the journal). "Twentieth-century art was concerned with the thingness of things, how a painting is paint on a canvas," she says. "You can see that in how he emphasizes the journalness of the journal." It is the magazine as Joseph Cornell box.