Book Review : Dave Eggers - A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius (2000)

Country: USA

Genre: Literary/Memoir

Pages: 437

This is my last reading for the BACK TO THE CLASSIC 2011 reading challenge. The question I had to answer here was "Will this be a 21st Century classic?" For those who don't know who Dave Eggers is, he's a writer (duh!) and the editor of McSweeney's, one of the biggest independent literary magazines out there. He broke into the literary scene with a huge bang in 2000, with this book - A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS, which is a novelish memoir or a memoirish novel, depending on your mood. It's a lot of things and nothing in particular. It's a little bit of a road novel, a pinch of a learning novel, a handful of a memoir, a lot of style and a good-hearted sense of humor about the author's own existential condition. Did I like A HEARTBREAKING WORD OF STAGGERING GENIUS? Sure, I thought it was original, funny, tender and unlike anything else. Did I find it disjointed as all hell? Also.

One thing Dave Eggers does better than anybody else in this memoir/novel/whatever-it-is is that gloomy, almost apocalyptic vision of disease and death. The opening fifty pages are describing the slow agony of his mother and his father to such detail that it both crushed me and inspired me at the same this. He nailed the essence of terminal disease. A scary, horrible affliction that's eating you alive. Then Eggers shifts his focus to his new life of freedom, open possibilities and catatonic fear, as the new father in his little brother Toph's life. At twenty-one years old, Dave was given the custody of his eight years old brother, since both of his older siblings cannot welcome the child at the moment. Dave takes charge of him and it will start defining his life, whether he likes it or not. That's when the noveloir-thing starts going a little bit in every directions. Dave wants to have fun, wants to work, be successful, be a father to Toph, all at the same time. He discovers the hardships of having only twenty-four hours in a day.

Now, about this novel/memoir approach. Eggers makes it work really well. Well enough so that James Frey could have learned a thing or two from reading it, before releasing A MILLION LITTLE PIECES and save himself a lot of headaches (I mean c'mon, it was selling really well before the scandal). You can tell whenever Eggers invents something or when he's kidding, right on the page. There are too many once-in-a-lifetime situations and he shows way too much wits in those hard times to make it true. So it's cool. Dave Eggers' style  makes the charm of the book also. He's barely dipping his toes into the stream-of-consciousness. Enough to make it feel real and gut-wrenching (sometimes). What it mainly is, is a first person narration that detaches itself from any responsibility of narrative continuity like description or setting. He does it sometimes, but only when it feels the narrative. Reading A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS, you are Dave, this half-human/half-creation man with an unyielding thirst for life. It's beautiful.

But not everything works in this book (let's call it a book, all right?) While it doesn't really lack in character development (where it matters anyway, Dave and Toph are really well developed. They feel human), it just goes in every directions. Literally. Dave keeps bouncing all over the place, trying to capture something he feels fleeing at every moment. His youth I supposed. There is this beautiful passage as he's getting interviewed for a place in the reality show THE REAL WORLD where he says he wants the world to witness his youth. That's the main theme of the book right there. But this beautiful despair makes him ping-pong all over the place and he just sounds like another young guy who can't commit to anything and ends up burying himself in his work. Sound, solid work that is (there's a detail account of his attempt at faking Adam Rich's death, which resonates with the death of his parents at the beginning), but still. You just want to grab his shoulder, shake him and yell : "GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER MAN, I FEEL LIKE READING A TRANSCRIPT FROM THE LIFE OF AN ADD GUY".

Will A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS be a 21st century classic? Yes, I think so. This is a precursor in the shady memoir as-a-genre and it's the most honest of them all, so it's going to be remembered along with that Frey book. Also, I have to admire the courage of Dave Eggers for trying to make stream-of-consciousness storytelling, a easy reading art form. Not that it works perfectly, but it's a nice breath of fresh air. I love writers that have their own style, the balls to try something new and enough self-restrain to make it work. Dave Eggers has it all. The more I think about it, the more I loved A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS. Yes, it doesn't really go anywhere and it's maybe a hundred pages too long, but it's a dynamic read and something completely new and unsettling. Highly recommended.

Possible 21st Century Classic


I'm a pop culture blogger and author living in Montreal, Canada with my better half Josie and my dog Scarlett. I am a proud member of author collective Zelmer Pulp and have about a dozen of short stories published to my resume.

1 comment:

  1. I think you pretty much nailed it. You have to admire the balls of the guy for attempting what he does, and the fact that he (mostly) pulls it off. It is cool and it is stylish, self-consciously so, but there is enough painful honesty for the reader to enjoy the lighter, more playful stylings. Even to think the author has earned these moments.

    I read this book a long time ago, but it is one of the novels that stays freshest in my memory. Dave Eggers has done some good stuff since (and not just writing, he has used his new influence for all kinds of good works), but I have a feeling his true classics are still to come.

    Good review.