A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

I really have no idea what to say about this memoir. I read it, and then set it down for a long time, and thought about it for a few days, and tried, but I didn’t know how to arrange my thoughts. So, if this seems odd, my apologies. 

At first I loved A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Dave Eggers made me laugh from the very get go with his ridiculous Preface, Contents, Acknowledgments [complete with an image of a stapler]. There are sections that stand out vividly and parts I really didn’t care about, parts I should have skipped, to be honest.
But this guy did make me laugh, and I give him an internet high five for that. 

Basically this is a story/memoir of Eggers’ younger life. It kicks off with his parents dying, both from cancer, both in the same year, the same winter. Which would suck and is strange and sad all at once. There are four kids in the family; Bill, Beth, Dave and Toph. Toph is much younger than the others, so when the parents pass away, Eggers – 21 years old – must “adopt” 7 year old Toph.
So, in essence, this book follows Eggers as he raises Toph… intermingled with his starting a magazine, his friends that he has, an audition for The Real World, his struggle with his parent’s deaths, whatever became of their bodies [donated to science], and his paranoia for how Toph will turn out. 

The BEST parts of this book would be the anecdotes about Toph and Dave. They are funny and kind of sad and also feel really… free. Like, you want to be playing Frisbee on the beach, or sliding in your socks across wood floors, because it seems so young and empowering the way Eggers writes it.

“Please look. Can you see us? Can you see us, in our little red car? … Look at us, goddammit, the two of us slingshotted from the back side of the moon, greedily cartwheeling towards everything we are owed… Today we have nowhere to be so we‘re on our way to Montara, a beach about thirty-five minutes south of San Francisco, and right now we are singing: She was alone! She never knew! [something something something!], When we touched! When we [rhymes with same!], all [something something]! All night! All night!.... Toph does not know the words, and I know few of the words, but you cannot fucking stop us from singing. I’m trying to get him to do the second all night part, with me doing the first part, like:
Me: All night! (higher)
Him: All-ll Night! (slightly lower)
I point to him when his part comes but he just looks at me blankly. I point to the radio, then to him, then to his mouth, but he’s still confused, and it’s hard doing any of this while trying not to careen off the road and into the Pacific and I guess in a way the gestures look like I want him to eat the radio. But Jesus, he should be able to figure this out. He isn’t cooperating. Or he could be dumb. Is he dumb?”

I love that part. It’s just a little sample of what Eggers does, how he directly interacts with the reader, his stream of conscious kind of writing style. He goes on in this chapter, showing that kind of freedom I was talking about:

“You can’t stop us from singing, and you can’t stop us from making fart sounds, from putting our hands out the window to test the aerodynamics of different hand formations, from wiping the contents of our noses under the front of our seats. You cannot stop me from having Toph, who is eight, steer, on a straightaway, while I take off my sweatshirt because suddenly it’s gotten really fucking hot. You cannot stop us from throwing our beef jerky wrappers on the floor, or leaving our unfolded laundry in the trunk for, fuck, eight days now, because we have been busy. You cannot stop Toph from leaving a half-full cardboard orange juice container under the seat, where it will rot and ferment and the make the smell in the car intolerable, with that smell’s provenance remaining elusive for weeks, during which the windows must be kept open at all times, until finally it is found and Toph is buried to his neck in the backyard and covered in honey – or should have been – for his role in the debacle.”

Like seriously? When I read that, it all just seems so tangible. You can see it all happening, like it’s playing out right before your eyes. Like the reader is there with them, in the car. Watching an 8 year old hold the car steady. 

Another great thing that Eggers does throughout the book is talk about a small instance that grows into a horrifically exaggerated scene. He does this a lot in reference to Toph and what Toph will eventually grow up to be. This instance is of Eggers not wanting to get a babysitter for Toph:

“Beth and I are still thinking it’s too early to leave Toph with anyone but family, that to do otherwise would cause him to feel unwanted and alone, leading to the warping of his fragile psyche, then to experimentation with inhalants, to the joining of some River’s Edge kind of gang, too much flannel and too little remorse, the cutting of his own tats, the drinking of lamb’s blood, the inevitable initiation-fulfilling murder of me and Beth in our sleep.”

The idea of a babysitter drastically changes into Toph becoming a drugged up, tatted, murdering gang member. It’s one of my favorite things that Eggers does in the book, this exaggeration method, jumping to the absolute WORST case scenario. 

But now. Those were the good parts. The parts I should have skipped? Anything that didn’t have to do with Toph. Like, the magazine stuff. The instances in the book where Eggers isn’t talking about Toph and himself, those are the parts that have lost heart in his writing. They just become boring and cold. Eggers still tries to be funny in those pieces of the text as well, but it falls flat. I wish that Eggers would have just stuck with the family motif, and stayed away from his career and things like that.

In the end, I’d say it’s worth a read, but don’t feel bad if you skip parts [Eggers actually suggests it in his Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of this Book], because they didn’t read as well, didn’t make me FEEL as much as the parts about the struggle to keep some normalcy in the family’s life. To me, that was the REAL story. 

On to reading!

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