Thursday, August 16, 2018

Book 142: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

"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 Beth and me in our sleep. So when I go out, once a week, on a day Beth and I have chosen together, Toph gets his things together, stuffs them into his backpack, uses both straps, and walks over to her house and spends the night on half of her futon." 

Date read: April 24- May 1, 2017

Rating: 4/10

Lists/Awards: New York Times Bestseller

By the time she was my age, my mom had already lost both of her parents. My grandmother died when my mom was just 25, and my grandfather had a massive heart attack in his sleep when she was in her early 30s. My dad, on the other hand, didn't lose his first parent until he was just about 50 and his second only earlier this year. I can't even imagine what it must have been like to lose two parents by my age like my mom did. My parents are still a big part of my life and there's so much more still to share with them.

Dave Eggers, though, had it worse than anyone I personally know. He lost both of his parents, to cancer, one just about a month after the other, when he was only a senior in college. In his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Eggers recounts those deaths and his subsequent guardianship of his 8 year-old brother, Toph. The Eggers brothers leave their Illinois home behind and move to the Bay Area, in part to stay close to their older sister Beth, and in part for career opportunities for Dave as he tries to get a new magazine, Might, off the ground while also trying to figure out how to raise a child.

Before I even picked this book up, I was aware that it seems to inspire strong feelings. Some people HATE it and some people think it's magnificent. How you will receive this book depends entirely on how you feel about Eggers' writing. If you think his stream-of-consciousness, wildly tangential, constantly-on-the-verge-of-a-panic-attack style of narrative is great, you'll think this book is amazing. If, however, you want a straightforward, relatively linear narrative, you will think this is the worst thing you've ever read.

It feels beside the point to talk about story structure, because there isn't really any (it's very hard to tell how fast time is passing and there aren't really narrative beats to speak of), or character development, because there isn't really any of that either. Even for a memoir, a sense of story and character tend to be important, but neither is a priority for Eggers. While I'm usually fairly open to nontraditional narrative, this book is 100% style over substance. The most compelling part, for me, was the relationship between Dave and Toph, and Dave wrestling with both his fierce love and concern for his brother and his acknowledged resentment of being prematurely thrust into a parental role. However, I mostly found it tiresome. It held my attention inconsistently at best, I was usually bored long before a particular side riff was over. Eggers' flaw isn't that he's wildly self-absorbed (I think memoir is an inherently self-absorbed form since it's literally assuming that your own life is so compelling that other people want to read about it), but that he's not nearly as interesting as he thinks he is. I wouldn't recommend this book, but I wouldn't tear it out of anyone's hands and I can understand why some people really respond to it. I just didn't.

Tell me, blog you think your life is interesting enough to write a book about?

One year ago, I was reading: Mildred Pierce

Two years ago, I was reading: Wild Bill Donovan


  1. I read this when I was (I think) nineteen, so I'm wondering if liking it/not liking it boils down to age. (You can deal with A LOT of pretentious writing when you're that age!)

    1. HA! So true, I think I would have found it much more appealing when I was younger!