Book Review: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

I am a freak in secondhand velour, a leper who uses L’Oreal Anti-sticky Mega Gel. I am rootless, ripped from all foundations, an orphan raising an orphan and wanting to take away everything there is and replace it with stuff I’ve made.

I seem to be in a bit of a rut here. I’m reading a lot of books that are purportedly about super sad topics but are really quite hilarious. This is, of course, not a bad thing, just a thing. If all the books I read from now on are as good as this book and the ones before it I’ll be a happy man. Well, a sad and happy man.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a memoir, only the second or third that I have read. I’m not huge on just hearing what happened to a guy as he grew up or whatever. Give me something exciting. Give me space aliens or a talking cat or a guy dressed up in tights, something that I can’t see looking out my window, or looking in my own head. So, does A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius get over the memoir hump? Yes, very much yes. The book thrives because it is a pure extension of Mr. Eggers’ personality. He prefaces the book with a few guidelines and warnings (you might want to stop after the first four chapters because after that the book focuses on the lives of twentysomethings and they are the most boring of all people). And then he puts some deleted scenes in the second preface. And then he gives us a line by line description of how he spent the money he got for writing the book. And then he gives us a drawing of a stapler, because a line by line description of how he spent the money isn’t very exciting. And then the book starts for real.

It’s not like Eggers doesn’t haven anything to talk about. His parents both died within a month of each other when he was in college and he became his 7-year-old brother’s guardian. There is much talk about being a new kind of parent, a shining beacon for how things can and should be done. He will correct the mistakes of his childhood. He will not be secret drunk, he will not be an abusive parent. He will not get his younger brother to school on time, ever. He is tired of answering all the questions that come with his situation, so he makes up answers that get more and more ridiculous. When asked why he wants to be on The Real World, which is shooting its third season in San Francisco, he responds,

-Because I want everyone to witness my youth

-Isn’t it gorgeous?

He is full of himself, yes, but that ego is what makes his book so strong, so compelling, so close to heartbreak and staggering genius.

Dave Eggers wrote the script for the film adaptation of Where The wild Things Are. It feels like an Eggers work, too.

For me, the best parts of the book deal with Eggers trying to raise Toph, his younger brother. There’s a certain something in their relationship that gets to me. It’s probably rooted in my relationship with my younger brother, a relationship that is good but could always be better, I suppose. Whenever Eggers leaves Toph alone anywhere he automatically starts thinking of the ways that somebody will come and kill Toph. The mysterious killer will enter through the back door and then slip out the window after the deed has been done. Or he’ll enter through the front door, in the guise of a babysitter from the nearby college. He’s a seemingly nice young man but he clearly is a killer. He’ll poison Toph and then continue studying for his test the next day. Insidious. I do this, too. I imagine the way my friends and family will die, every day. If I can’t reach you on your cell phone you’ve died in a car crash. If you don’t come back home by the time you said you would you have been abducted and sold into slavery of one form or another. Eggers does this a bunch of times throughout the book and they would get tiresome if he weren’t such a good writer, able to phrase the same thing a billion different ways, each of them funnier than the last.

Which brings us to our last point. The book is funny and sad, quick and slow, upbeat and downcast. It accurately reflects the state of mind one might be in under such extreme circumstances his thoughts are all over the place. The real weight of the story doesn’t come into play until the second to last chapter. The book ends with a Ulysses-esque ejaculation of words and sentiment, anger and happiness and sadness and expectations. There is an As I Lay Dying proclamation: “My mother is a box.” This book is smart and affecting. It not exactly a Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It is, perhaps, half a step down from that. A Heartwrenching Work of Impressive Artistry.

12 thoughts on “Book Review: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

  1. He is such a good writer, isn’t he? I decide to take the “he’s inspiring” approach to it rather than getting jelous at the young genious. I’m glad you appreciated the book and your review makes me want to revisit it.

    1. Yeah, same here. It’s proof positive that you can write about anything. And it shames you into feeling you should do something, which is great. “If you don’t want anyone to know about your existence, you might as well kill yourself. You’re taking up space, air.”

  2. A truly great book, if not “staggering” or “genius”. I have rarely been caught by a book like this one, and the end slapped me across the face– I have never read the like. Also, I don’t think any film could do it justice.

    1. I thought about the film adaptation and I think it’d have to have a constant narrator. I guess that’s how memoir adaptations are done usually, but I could see it maybe working. Probably not though.

  3. I made the mistake of reading this on a 14 day cruise filled with elderly patrons. Eggers’ book made me consider jumping overboard.

    1. He’s a very distinct and captivating voice. I love Where The Wild Things Are and I look forward to checking out his other works.

  4. What am I missing? Eggers book is merely stream of consciousness writing…a sort of disjointed, rambling of his experiences. There are fleeting moments of wit, but for the most part, I find his philosophy tiring and sophomoric. I haven’t finished it, so I’m hoping I’m wowed at the end.

    1. I kind of like it for all of those reasons. It is rambling and shambolic, which is why it’s so much fun (when it isn’t, as the title suggests, heartbreaking). If you aren’t liking one story, just wait a few pages and you’ll get another. It’s not the way every book should be written but a book about a 20 something year old guy dealing with the things he’s dealing with should read like a disjointed mess.

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