Gary Baum: Friend or FoE?
By Kim Mellen, Fri., March 9, 2001
Any fan of Dave Eggers would find it unsurprising, apropos even, to find out that Gary Baum, the meticulous curator of "Eggersiana" behind www.aphrodigitaliac.com, is just another one of the author's pseudonyms. We all know that the guy is smart enough -- and enough of a control freak -- to conjure this Harry Knowles-like figure through which he can track his own hype, and even engineer his own backlash.
But the e-mail from firstname.lastname@example.org says, "People constantly wonder if I'm part of an elaborate attempt by Eggers at guerrilla marketing or literary pranksterism. But the truth is that I'm just Gary Baum, a high school student from Calabasas, with no previous connection to the New York City media scene." What does that prove, though? He offers his phone number, which seems to be legit. And a search on Google.com offers up more evidence of his existence: a treatise on morality and virtual reality authored by him with the credible claim that he is the editor in chief of his high school newspaper, the Calabasas Courier, in Calabasas, Calif., and an undercover sting, of sorts, masterminded by him to investigate whether sporting a loud Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt makes him more popular with the ladies.
Being that he is so, errr, focused, on Eggers, Baum is probably not going to try to stop anyone from nursing their conspiracy theories. But dismissing the 17-year-old as an obsessed fan wanting to emulate his hero's every move would be missing the point, as Eggers himself did when he wrote that Baum is someone "who publishes a website which, creepily enough, talks mostly nicely and in detail about me." The portrait of Eggers that emerges from Baum's "FoE! [Friends of Eggers] Log" is far more nuanced, mature, and professional than much of the media hype he catalogs.
Baum's "My Manifesto" column, which he launched in late 1998, first examined the flood of critical acclaim that the just-released A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was garnering. He introduced the label "FoE!" -- people and publications aligned favorably with the author -- and began chronicling their contribution to the rise of a pop culture phenomenon. Thanks to mentions on popular sites such as Feed.com and Jim Romenesko's MediaNews (www.poynter.org/medianews/), readers flooded in and Baum found himself with a cadre of informants offering everything from news clips to inside dirt.
After a mere five installments that delved into such things as Eggers' grade-school friendship with actor Vince Vaughn, the antics of the AHWOSG book tour, and the FoE! status of reviewers of the memoir (conflicts of interest, anyone?), Baum dropped the bomb that he had been corresponding with Eggers' older sister Beth over e-mail. With her permission, he ran quotes from her expressing her frustration over both her brother's book and the press downplaying her role in taking care of her cancer-stricken parents and their younger brother Christopher after their parents passed away.
Unlike Harry Knowles, however, Baum tends far less toward boosterism -- he's quick to zero in on any conflicts and contradictions, anything showing cracks in the author's veneer. However, "Contrary to popular belief, I don't 'love' him or 'hate' him," offers Baum. "I'm fascinated by him: the way he writes, the way everyone gravitates towards him, the way he attracts buzz, the way he inspires so many people, the way he wants, as he says in Staggering Genius, to get people together and do extraordinary things."
Eggers' inspirational prowess is a peculiar thing. Visitors who stumble upon McSweeneys.org or McSweeneys.com will find, respectively, a cybersquatting parody and a real McSweeney's family. Even a superficial surf of the Eggers-backed McSweeneys.net (some wonder, despite his denials, if all three incarnations aren't, in fact, Eggers-backed), reveals that contributors automatically mimic the author's voice (they can't all be Eggers, can they?). For all Baum's meticulous footnoting and quirky lists and stories that comprise his non-FoE! "My Manifesto" installments, he may include himself in that group. Is it still hijacking if it's David Foster Wallace's influence as manifested through Dave Eggers that's being appropriated? When does mimicking turn into a movement?
"Since the beginning, I've always thought that Eggers and what he was doing with McSweeney's was brilliant," Baum says. "He's the puppet master and this literary scene he's organized and helmed is, in many ways, his theatre." And as for his own part? "Remember the film Being John Malkovich? In a way, Eggers is sort of my vessel; he's useful as an example of a pop culture phenomenon -- and I've tried to examine him as such." Vessels? Puppets? Maybe the question, then, is not if Gary Baum is really Dave Eggers, but whether Dave Eggers is really Gary Baum.