- Author: Dave Eggers
- File Size: 2050 KB
- Print Length: 426 pages
- Publisher: Picador; Reprints edition (December 15, 2014)
- Publication Date: December 15, 2014
- Language: English
‘Heartbreaking? Certainly. Staggering? Yes, I’d say so. And if genius is capturing the universal in a fresh and memorable way, call it that too’ Anthony Quinn, Sunday Times
‘Is this how all orphans would speak – “I am at once pitiful and monstrous, I know” – if they had Dave Eggers’s prodigious linguistic gifts? For he does write wonderfully, and this is an extremely impressive debut’ John Banville, Irish Times
‘A virtuosic piece of writing, a big, daring, manic-depressive stew of a book that noisily announces the debut of a talented – yes, staggeringly talented – new writer’
‘Exhilarating . . . Profoundly moving, occasionally angry and often hilarious . . . A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is, finally, a finite book of jest, which is why it succeeds so brilliantly’
‘What is really shocking and exciting is the book’s sheer rage. AHWOSG is truly ferocious, like any work of genius. Eggers – self-reliant, transcendent, expansive – is Emerson’s ideal Young American. [The book] does itself justice: it is a settling of accounts. And it is almost too good to be believed’
‘A hilarious book . . . In it, literary gamesmanship and self-consciousness are trained on life’s most unendurable experience, used to examine a memory too scorching to stare at, as one views an eclipse by projecting sunlight onto paper through a pinhole’
‘Eggers evokes the terrible beauty of youth like a young Bob Dylan, frothing with furious anger . . . He takes us close, shows us as much as he can bear . . . His book is a comic and moving witness that transcends and transgresses formal boundaries’
Dave Eggers is a terrifically talented writer; don’t hold his cleverness against him. What to make of a book called A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: Based on a True Story? For starters, there’s a good bit of staggering genius before you even get to the true story, including a preface, a list of “Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of This Book,” and a 20-page acknowledgements section complete with special mail-in offer, flow chart of the book’s themes, and a lovely pen-and-ink drawing of a stapler (helpfully labeled “Here is a drawing of a stapler:”).
But on to the true story. At the age of 22, Eggers became both an orphan and a “single mother” when his parents died within five months of one another of unrelated cancers. In the ensuing sibling division of labor, Dave is appointed unofficial guardian of his 8-year-old brother, Christopher. The two live together in semi-squalor, decaying food and sports equipment scattered about, while Eggers worries obsessively about child-welfare authorities, molesting babysitters, and his own health. His child-rearing strategy swings between making his brother’s upbringing manically fun and performing bizarre developmental experiments on him. (Case in point: his idea of suitable bedtime reading is John Hersey’s Hiroshima.)
The book is also, perhaps less successfully, about being young and hip and out to conquer the world (in an ironic, media-savvy, Gen-X way, naturally). In the early ’90s, Eggers was one of the founders of the very funny Might Magazine, and he spends a fair amount of time here on Might, the hipster culture of San Francisco’s South Park, and his own efforts to get on to MTV’s Real World. This sort of thing doesn’t age very well–but then, Eggers knows that. There’s no criticism you can come up with that he hasn’t put into A.H.W.O.S.G. already. “The book thereafter is kind of uneven,” he tells us regarding the contents after page 109, and while that’s true, it’s still uneven in a way that is funny and heartfelt and interesting.
All this self-consciousness could have become unbearably arch. It’s a testament to Eggers’s skill as a writer–and to the heartbreaking particulars of his story–that it doesn’t. Currently the editor of the footnote-and-marginalia-intensive journal McSweeney’s (the last issue featured an entire story by David Foster Wallace printed tinily on its spine), Eggers comes from the most media-saturated generation in history–so much so that he can’t feel an emotion without the sense that it’s already been felt for him. What may seem like postmodern noodling is really just Eggers writing about pain in the only honest way available to him. Oddly enough, the effect is one of complete sincerity, and–especially in its concluding pages–this memoir as metafiction is affecting beyond all rational explanation.
Literary self-consciousness and technical invention mix unexpectedly in this engaging memoir by Eggers, editor of the literary magazine McSweeney’s and the creator of a satiric ‘zine called Might, who subverts the conventions of the memoir by questioning his memory, motivations and interpretations so thoroughly that the form itself becomes comic. Despite the layers of ironic hesitation, the reader soon discerns that the emotions informing the book are raw and, more importantly, authentic. After presenting a self-effacing set of “Rules and Suggestions for the Enjoyment of this Book” (“Actually, you might want to skip much of the middle, namely pages 209-301”) and an extended, hilarious set of acknowledgments (which include an itemized account of his gross and net book advance), Eggers describes his parents’ horrific deaths from cancer within a few weeks of each other during his senior year of college, and his decision to move with his eight year-old brother, Toph, from the suburbs of Chicago to Berkeley, near where his sister, Beth, lives. In California, he manages to care for Toph, work at various jobs, found Might, and even take a star turn on MTV’s The Real World. While his is an amazing story, Eggers, now 29, mainly focuses on the ethics of the memoir and of his behavior–his desire to be loved because he is an orphan and admired for caring for his brother versus his fear that he is attempting to profit from his terrible experiences and that he is only sharing his pain in an attempt to dilute it. Though the book is marred by its ending–an unsuccessful parody of teenage rage against the cruel world–it will still delight admirers of structural experimentation and Gen-Xers alike.
I was really uncertain what to expect with this book. There seemed to be a lot of strong reactions, both positive and negative. After finishing the book I understand why so many people seem to despise the book, and why others (like myself) love it.
Before even reaching the first page of the novel there is an acknowledgment page, well pages. The acknowledgment section is multiple pages of small print ravings. Eggers explains that you are more than welcome to skip this section. I recommend that you do not. It is long, but it is also humorous and will set the tone for the novel yet to come.
A Heartbreaking Work of a Staggering Genius is about as pompously and as self-centered as the title suggests. Eggers is a twenty-something year old who not only has to find his own way in life, he is doing so while coming to terms with death and parenting his younger brother. It can be seen as a coming of age novel where the narrator has to figure out how to live with death. Or, maybe it is a novel about death where the living are brought along as side characters. Either way, the book truly is genius.
It is also eccentric. If you are looking for a more traditional narrative structure or a more mature and likable main character, then you will probably passionately hate this novel. If you are looking for something that pushes the envelope, that looks at novel writing as an art form and isn’t afraid to show the world in all its gory truth then you will probably love this book as much as I do.