A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
Published: Picador 2000
“I have no idea how people function without near-constant internal chaos. I’d lose my mind.”
This book has been on my radar for a while – I remember seeing the distinctive cover and title in bookshops years ago, and I was reminded of it as it appears on the most bizarre/hallowed of all reading lists – The Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge (it features in episode 515 for all you Gilmore fans). It was nominated for the Pulitzer non-fiction prize, and on the NY Times bestseller list.
After asking around in some bookshops, I was told it’s currently out of print in the UK – a new edition in the next year I think – but luckily found a good copy on eBay. Isn’t it a stupidly beautiful looking book?
AHWOSG is a memoir of sorts released in 2000, focusing on Eggers experience following the death of both his parents, and taking over the guardianship of his little brother Toph (Christopher). Both parents died within around a month of each other, from different diseases, and Eggers, just graduating college, the 3rd of 4 children took over as main parent for Toph. All of the siblings moved from their childhood home in suburban Chicago to California. The book chronicles Eggers going through the normal messiness of his twenties, a member of Generation X in San Francisco, while at the same time learning to be a parent (but still a brother) and come to terms with his relationships with both his parents (and their deaths).
I really enjoyed this book – it took me slightly longer than I expected to read it, but some of the passages deserve to be read slowly. There are some changes in style in the book that I’m sure not everyone will like. Before the story proper starts there are these sections:
Rules and Suggestions for the Enjoyment of this Book
Preface to This Edition
Incomplete Guide to Symbols and Metaphors
Eggers has written all of this but frequently refers to himself as ‘the author’ and pokes fun at himself, at the title, what he’s trying to achieve, and even the reader a little bit. I’m going to address some of the themes in the book which he himself lists in the Acknowledgements section (they go up to U).
“C) The Painfully, Endlessly Self-Conscious Book Aspect”
As this is based on a true story (though some passages are often in the author’s imagination), there is of course some fairly self-conscious sections. This is often addressed by Eggers making up what other characters said, or ‘breaking the fourth wall’. There is a section where he was interviewed to be on MTV’s The Real World, and we realise quite quickly that this is not a real conversation but a plot device, because he tells us in this excerpt:
“So tell me something: This isn’t really a transcript of the interview, is it?
It’s not much like the actual interview at all, is it?
Not that much, no.
This is a device, this interview style. Manufactured and fake.
It’s a good device, though. Kind of a catchall for a bunch of anecdotes that would be too awkward to force together otherwise.
This is one example, another is a friend mocking the enterprise of writing the book. It’s self-conscious in that Eggers seems to be mocking himself. At other times ‘breaking the fourth wall’ is used to insert Eggers’ thoughts or opinions, almost like conversing with the reader. I actually really enjoyed this playing around with style – it keeps the book moving along and is generally quite funny.
“F) The Part Where The Author Either Exploits or Exalts His Parents, Depending on Your Point of View”
Obviously no-one is perfect, and Eggers makes it quite clear this is the case for his parents. His dad was a long-time alcoholic and constant smoker, and often caused tension and drama when Dave and Beth and Bill (his two older siblings) were young. I found the mixed emotions around his mother more intriguing, as her shortcomings (in Eggers’ eyes) are far more murky. She is portrayed at different times as a saint, as ambivalent, as hard to please.
“Did her eyes make me this way? The way she watched, stared, approved and disapproved? Oh, those eyes. Slits, lasers, needles of shame, guilt, judgement – Was it a Catholic thing or just a her thing?”
No matter whether you ultimately decide he is exalting or exploiting (or neither), this main theme of the book is rich and expansive. The questions surrounding losing both parents so young, dealing with the loss of complex relationships, whilst also trying to distance himself from them (geographically rather than mentally) felt like they were handled with honesty.
“O) The Aspect Concerning The Unavoidability, Given The Situation With Brother, of Near-Constant Poignance”
Probably my favourite aspect of the book was the relationship between Dave and Toph. Dave is wracked with guilt about the fact that Toph is parentless so young, that his parent now is him, just out of college, messy, not knowing much about Social Security, how to raise a child, how even to look after himself. He is constantly worried that Toph won’t make friends, will struggle at school, will be psychologically damaged. None of this happens, and it is endearing to see him worry constantly about all of this, whilst Toph seems perfectly happy. Some of the funniest passages in the book are when Dave leaves Toph with a babysitter, or can’t find him after a party, and imagines all the things that could happen.
“I will come home and the door will be open, wide. The baby-sitter will be gone and there will be silence. And at once I will know. There will be the smell of everything being perfectly wrong. At the steps up to Toph’s room there will be blood.”
These get increasingly ridiculous throughout each episode. They are funny because they are so realistic – the terrible thoughts that will race through a parents mind as soon as they can’t find their child. This along with other sections are testament to how committed Eggers is to provide for Toph, to care for him and give him a happy childhood/adolescence. There are multiple joyous, panoramic scenes of the two of them playing Frisbee on various beaches. Eggers exposes his own fears of not being up to the task, but contrasts this with the fun and obvious closeness between the two.
This is a really interesting book – it’s readable, well-written and packed with insights into family relationships. I don’t think it will be for everyone – I’m sure the author’s style will not be to everybody’s taste, but I would certainly recommend it. Despite being very good and very enjoyable, something – I’m not quite sure what – stopped it living up to its title for me, and so I’d give it four stars rather than five.
Have you read this or any of Dave Eggers’ other books? What else are people reading?