A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers


This book comes puppy recommended.

(Ody is a captious & persnickety reader, mind you)

I love McSweeney’s. I have for quite a long time & yet I never read anything by Dave Eggers. Actually, I’d read his Foreword in Infinite Jest. Honestly, I didn’t like it. It makes the book seem like this insurmountable climb, promising eternal wisdom & a changed outlook on life by the end. Which it is not & does not, but that’s for another review.

My point is, I love McSweeney’s magazine. I read the online stuff because it’s free. The majority of the stuff available is not by Dave Eggers. However, I’m going to stand by this rule & say that if you like the articles there, you will like the humor in this book & as a result, you will laugh when Eggers hopes you’ll laugh. This is important because this book is wracked with emotion.

So I’ll wait while you google some McSweeney articles or click that hyperlink. I’ll recommend, “It’s Decorative Gourd Season Motherfuckers,” but do not think that this has anything to do with the story of AHWOSG.

Back? Cool. The humor in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is probably a bit more meta than anything you just read, but the unironic irony is the same (just read that damn title). The funny bits range from moments where Eggers breaks the fourth wall and starts addressing the reader, to family stories (mostly centering Toph, his younger brother) that make you feel like it could’ve been your own family (but it so totally is not).

The story is basically autobiographical, an almost taboo genre for certain writers & readers. Some people don’t like reading semi-autobiographical works because they don’t want to mix the author with his story. They want to read it without dragging the person behind it into the context. I get that. I feel that way about a ton of books I’ve read. You can’t do that here.

A young Dave Eggers (just a few years older than me, yikes) narrates his life to you directly after his father passed & directly before his mother is about to. Sad? Yeah… His sister & he (because the brother isn’t really mentioned much in the story) take on the roles of parent/sibling/hybrid caretakers for their youngest brother Toph. It follows Egger’s life as Toph gets older, dealing with apartment hunting, cooking menus, school social situations, holidays, and what not. But it’s all laid out with the disclaimer to the viewer that there’s a wall up between them and the world. A constant feeling like they’re being watched by the rest of us normal people with not nearly as much heartbreak. It’s angry at times, sometimes at you, the reader, but it reaches past the sympathetic spiel and tries to get at what’s actually going on.

The low points of the book are probably Egger’s work at the magazine or his musings on growing up & growing apart from friends & what not. The exception being the brilliant MTV audition interview, which Eggers manipulates as a way to give the reader some backstory. He uses this technique later on in conversations with Toph & it’s one of my favorite aspects of the book. These parts were a bit better for me to read being an almost college grad & what not; I still feel invincible, I still feel like I am youth & possibility incarnate.

I never cried when I read this as a lot of other people said they did, which is odd for me considering I tear up at well advertised beer commercials. But I did feel incredibly sobered. Sometimes, oddly, death can seem almost romantic. If somebody is orphaned it almost becomes an interesting feature about them, makes them special, almost holy. There’s nothing romantic about death from this book or in life. One scene describes Eggers attempting to sprinkle his mother’s ashes in the lake. He fumbles & worries about breathing them in or dropping some on his shoes or falling in himself. Death is dealt with practically, it’s dealt with a cool, adult, responsibility to continue on. Which makes the moments when Eggers starts to lose his cool all the more important.

By the end of the book, you almost feel bad for liking it. He urges the reader to take him, take his life offered up to you on a silver platter in entertainment form. Use it to gain some escape form your own life, use it to try & feel something, use him.

Thanks, Eggers, don’t mind if I do. This book made me feel everything & I think that’s the point. I loved it. You don’t need anybody to tell you it’s good, there’s a Pulitzer Prize nom sticker for that. You need to see if this is for you.

Since reading this, I bought his other book The Wild Things, which is partially adapted from Maurice Sendak’s picture-book & partially from Spike Lee’s screenplay. I’ve also watched his Ted Talk & a few of the slim interviews available on youtube. The book makes you feel the need to know this guy. Or at least know his little brother, who is thirty-one now & damn attractive as hell. From google searches you’ll find his sister has since died, he’s been married, so much has changed, but you just read this guy’s story two days ago!

Eggers’ novel deals with media ethics just as much as it does his own life. Not surprising for a guy who just wrote a book about an all-knowing Big Brother like social media tech company. If anybody’s read this one, let me know how it is. It’s next on my list.

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