Review: ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’


A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

By Dave Eggers

  • Date finished: June 2, 2014
  • Genre: Fiction (with a little bit of memoir)
  • Year: 2000
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading List: Spring 2014, 65 Books to Read in Your 20’s
  • Grade: A-
  • Thoughts upon finishing:

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a complicated book. Even though I clearly don’t remember when it came out (I was in…6th/7th grade?), I can imagine that when it did, you fell into one of two camps: you loved it, or you despised it. It’s just that kind of book. Either you loved its voice and manic sense of urgency, or you hated Dave Eggers and his self-absorbed life, no matter what tragedies happened to him and his family.

I fell in the middle of those two camps, leaning more toward the ‘like’ side. First of all, though, let’s get the negative out of the way. Dave Eggers is clearly obsessed with himself, or he had to be (at least a little) to write a book like this. Unlike any other memoir I’ve read, this one felt most like an endless strand of “me-me-me-me-me….me!!!” Even though Eggers is behind McSweeney’s (which is hilarious) and the most recent film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are (which made me cry), I don’t know if I want to be his friend. OK, maybe I’d be able to stand him now, but I would definitely avoid his mid-20-year-old self. I think he’d agree with this sentiment: he was kind of a prick.

But, you see, that’s the thing about Eggers that turns all that annoyance on its head: he’d readily agree with you. Oh yeah, he was totally a prick. And an asshole. And a jerk. And an idiot. But at least he’s honest about it – what about you?

This openness about Eggers’ story, the writing process, and his motivations while writing it just fascinated me. This book breaches the fourth wall many times, venturing into the meta category as Eggers puts his own thoughts into his characters’ mouths, turning self-reflection into a conversation with his brother, his friend, or a producer for ‘The Real World’.  One of my favorite parts was when he turned his friend’s various suicide attempts into a conversation about a writer’s role in a memoir and whether it’s right when they twist real-life events to fit into a tidy narrative. This friend, “John”, confronts Eggers using Egger’s own voice, accusing him of exaggerating his role, of turning him into a metaphor for his alcoholic father. Eggers asserts that he is allowed to do this, he is “owed” this, because of all he’s gone through, because of what he’s done, and because of how much he cares.

I can see this tactic coming off a bit pompous – “Oh, look at me. I am so smart, and such a good writer, that I can do something like this to my story and everyone thinks I’m a genius. Did I mention “genius” is in the title?” But, at the same time, I think it works – it works really well. Eggers was lucky; he took one part self-obsessed memoir, and one part fancy-schmancy writing tricks, and against all odds, came out with a combination that is fascinating, engaging, and yes, even a bit heartbreaking.

Because while I could give Eggers crap for being a prick, I have to admire him for what he did. The book centers around Eggers’ early 20’s, immediately after both his parents pass away from cancer only weeks apart. His older siblings unable to care for their 12-year-old brother, the 21-year-old Eggers becomes his brother’s guardian, moves to San Francisco, and attempts to build a somewhat stable life for Toph. Eggers’ panicked concern for his brother, and his desire to provide a stable, happy life for him, seems genuine to me and frankly, rather touching. I can’t even imagine my parents passing away in such a manner, and to take on the full-time care of a younger sibling is a giant, and brave, leap. The book, of course, deals heavily with family – Eggers is haunted by his mother’s death – and what it means to live, and love, as a family.

However, what struck me most about A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is what Eggers has to say about the manic optimism and energy of your early 20’s. While in San Francisco, Eggers and his high school friends start ‘Might’ magazine, a pseudo pre-cursor to McSweeney’s that was heavy on the ridiculous and satire. While Eggers certainly goes on about the ideals and lofty goals behind ‘Might,’ all I could think was, “Geez, this sounds like something someone would say when they’re 24.” Yes, let’s unite the young people behind a common cause! Let’s move! Let’s raise our voices! Let’s do something! Let’s show the world our power and virility! Let’s smash stuff and then rebuild it! We are the future, and the future is now! …. Of course, Eggers is doing all this in the mid-90’s, when most of everything was pretty hunky dory, and the young people didn’t have much to unite over. I think they were all just bored.

While working at ‘Might,’ Eggers also makes a point to note how depressing it is the minute the magazine starts becoming a 9-5 job, a routine. Suddenly, his life resembles what he has always sought to avoid – the life of someone with a job, a family, a home, “responsibilities”. By publishing the book in 2000, around Eggers’ 30th birthday, it seems fitting that the entire book is an ode to that certain brand of manic energy that fills your early 20’s. I remember that optimism. But reading this book also reminded me that while I’m not old, I’m not that age anymore. I’m now in my late 20’s. I have a house, a husband. I’ve entered a career that’s quiet, stable, and pedestrian. I’m over the smashing and uniting. It’s a little depressing, but also enlightening at the same time.

All in all, I’m glad I read this book. It wasn’t my favorite, but it made me think. But more than that – it made me feel.


3 thoughts on “Review: ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’

  1. Pingback: A look back at spring. A look ahead to summer. | Paperback Fool

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