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Review: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

I have just delivered a State of the Family Room Address, sweeping in scope, visionary in strategy, inspirational to one and all, and the issue has just come to committee. And though the committee has been looking at it from many angles, addressing matters of both provenance of the various elements of its unkemptness and matters of precisely who would be best suited to carry out the committee’s recommendations, we are stalemated, solution-wise. “But it’s mostly your stuff,” he said. He’s right. “Immaterial!” I say.

We are at an impasse, two parties with the same goal but, seemingly, no way to reconcile our ideas about getting there. “You know what we need?” Toph asks. “What?” I say. “A robot maid.”

A passage like this is, at first, hilarious and absurd. But just as you’re rolling along with the farce, perfectly willing to acknowledge its absurdity and the fact that you’ve had an argument exactly like this with one of your roommates or your mom, you get to the next section.

Running around hitting each other with things is pretty much the only thing we’re both interested in, and thus the rest of our operation suffers. We scrape through everyday blindly, always getting stumped on something we should know – how to plunge a toilet, how to boil corn, his Social Security number, the date of our father’s birthday – such that every day that he gets to school, that I get to work and back in time for dinner, each day that we cook and eat before nine and he goes to bed before eleven and doesn’t have blue malnourished-looking rings around his eyes like he did for all those months last year… feels like we’ve pulled off some fantastic trick.

Just a few paragraphs later you’re forced to remember that this is an argument between two orphans — an adult and his much younger brother — about who is supposed to be responsible for cleaning their dingy, cockroach-infested apartment. And just like that you’re reminded that you’re reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and it’s hard to take the joke as light-hearted banter any longer.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers 2001 memoir, is full of moments like this – staggeringly funny and undeniably heartbreaking at the same time. (Forgive the riff on the title, it was just too appropriate, and how can you comment on this book without some reference to the self-absorbed but totally accurate title). This imaginative memoir chronicles the years after both of Eggers’ parents died of cancer within about a month of each other. After their death, 21-year-old Eggers and his sister Beth become guardians of their 8-year-old brother Christopher (Toph). After moving to California, Eggers struggles to support himself and Toph both emotionally and financially. Bouncing from job to job, Eggers eventually helps found Might magazine and auditions for The Real World : Season 3, all the while trying to raise Toph as best he can.

The book is also unapologetically self-referential, never allowing the reader to forget that you’re reading a creative piece of literature. Eggers uses recipes, conversations, and self-deprecating preface and acknowledgements to give you a sense of what isn’t being said about what is going on. It’s the undercurrent of sadness that, although never asking you to feel sorry, keeps the more fantastic and irreverent pieces of the book from becoming overwhelming.

One of the biggest discussions related to the book is whether to categorize it as fiction or non-fiction. Although classified as a memoir because of its basis in a factual storyline, Eggers often moves away from the strict plot of the book to compress time or adjust his characters. In fact, many times he uses conversation – which he openly acknowledges in the preface and within the text to be fictionalized to some extent – as a way for characters to critique the book and their treatment in the memoir.

As someone just entering my 20s, Eggers’ struggles with how to balance being a single parent and model for Toph, along with his own desperation and confusion related to his past and future made for a book that I couldn’t help seeing part of myself in. I read this book almost nonstop most of the way through because Eggers’ style has a way of drawing you in and making you demand to know what happens next. But as I approached then end I had to slow down because I didn’t want it to be over. The book’s last, immensely long sentence, sums up the maniacal feeling of desperate want I think must characterize being twenty-something and unable to get that feeling out for anyone to understand. Eggers is angry, self-absorbed, and attention seeking, but he’s also understandable and sympathetic. He gets it… finally, finally, finally.

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  • Becca May 16, 2008, 4:52 am

    Heh. This was my second book review ever (at my old blog on myspace), which I titled “A Boring Work of Epic Proportions.” I really wanted to like this book, and I actually did for the first few chapters, but after that it got really difficult to read. The inner monologue just became really difficult for me to follow. And the whole part about The Real World really should have just been cut out.

    Sorry to rain on the parade here 🙁

  • grayskyeyes May 16, 2008, 3:58 pm

    Becca — I agree, the stream-of-consciousness writing near the middle and the end does get long, and sometimes hard to get through; I thought the Real World chapter was way too long. I think what kept me going though, and the reason I liked the book so much, was the parts where Eggers focused on relationships and people, especially he and Toph. Those sections were always my favorite. Even in the long parts, I loved those moments enough to probably read it again.

    And no parade raining, to each his own 🙂

  • Blood Equivalnce February 27, 2009, 8:10 pm

    This was an amazing work.
    Only the inane will pick up a memior and not enjoy the inner thoughts of the author.
    This book has strong impact if one has a younger brother.