Friday, December 10, 2010

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

Reviewed by Christina

Published: 2000

It's about: Dave Eggers was 21 when both of his parents died from Cancer in the winter of 1991. His two older siblings had other commitments, so Dave accepted responsibility for his younger brother, Christopher ("Toph"), who was eight years old at the time. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is an idiosyncratic memoir with fictional elements, chronicling Dave's life in San Francisco from about 1991 to 1996 as he raised Toph, was interviewed for The Real World, and co-founded a satirical magazine called Might.

I thought: Wow, I have so much to say about this book. It was a huge critical and commercial success, and it received rave reviews all over the place. As is customary, a bunch of bits and pieces of said reviews are printed on the fly pages in my edition, and I find myself agreeing with all of them. This is a powerful, raw, original book that shouts with unsettling accuracy about idealism, frustration, ambivalence, self-consciousness, and everything else that goes with being young; but it never comes right out and says those things directly. And of course, indirectly is the best way of saying important things in literature.
There are some really cool, new (to me) devices in this book. For example, Eggers lets a real conversation with an actual person evolve into internal dialogue in order to explore his own self-criticisms or catch the reader up on some personal history that hasn't previously been explained. This is especially effective when the original conversation is between Dave and Toph, because Toph's lines of dialogue gradually become more and more adult-sounding, until Eggers acknowledges that Toph is "breaking out of character." Then Eggers procedes to use Toph as a stand-in for himself, so that he can question is own motives. I'm not sure I explained that very well, but it really is quite inventive, and very effective.
The most moving parts of A Heartbreaking Work depict Eggers' relationship with Toph. It's not sentimental; they treat each other like brothers, calling each other names and teasing each other. But every time Eggers imagines himself in a worst-case scenario he thinks: "Toph. What will happen to Toph if I die?" And when he describes Toph, it's often in reference to himself. Toph is better looking, taller, more athletic than Dave was, but he's proud rather than jealous. Most of all, Dave feels love the way many parents do: as anxiety. I found that particularly touching.
But, despite everything good about it, I just didn't really like this book that much. The writing itself is great, and I loved Eggers' unconventional style. But his life was... kinda boring. The story of AHWOSG is really just a series of anecdotes from his life, the type of material we would expect to read in an exceptionally well-written blog nowadays. There is some closure with his mother's death near the end that ties things together a bit and makes the book feel cohesive, and that was nicely done. And I guess the eschewing of plot in favor of style is part of what postmodernism is all about. I can appreciate it, and I respect it, but (in this case, at least) I didn't particularly enjoy it.

Verdict: In between. It was well done, but I kept thinking about what I was going to read next.

Reading Recommendations: Start reading at the "THIS WAS UNCALLED FOR" page, and don't skip anything! Even the publication info page is amusingly different from what you'd expect.

Warnings: LOTS and LOTS of swears.

Favorite excerpts: [dancing at a club]
"Looking for space, we edge toward one corner, under a speaker. It's deafening, whatever it is (Earth, Wind and Fire?), the bass is massive, invasive; the bass knocks loudly and then pushes like floodwater into our brains and then is everywhere, forcing out all thinking; it brings ten suitcases and sets up in the master bedroom; it rearranges the furniture; the bass vibrates through our heads, adding a sound track to synapses, to everything stored there, to remembered phone numbers and childhood memories."

What I'm reading next: Five Quarters of the Orange, by Joanne Harris