A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius: A Memoir Based on a True Story
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
“Well, this was when Bill was sighing a lot. He had decided that after our parents died he just didn’t want any more fighting between what was left of us. He was twenty-four, Beth was twenty-three, I was twenty-one, Toph was eight, and all of us were so tried already, from that winter. So when something world come up, any little thing, some bill to pay or decision to make, he would just sigh, his eyes tired, his mouth in a sorry kind of smile. But Beth and I…Jesus, we were fighting with everyone, anyone, each other, with strangers at bars, anywhere—we were angry people wanting to exact revenge. We came to California and we wanted everything, would take what was ours, anything within reach. And I decided that little Toph and I, he with his backward hat and long hair, living together in our little house in Berkeley, would be world-destroyers. We inherited each other and, we felt, a responsibility to reinvent everything, to scoff and re-create and drive fast while singing loudly and pounding the windows. It was a hopeless sort of exhilaration, a kind of arrogance born of fatalism, I guess, of the feeling that if you could lose a couple of parents in a month, then basically anything could happen, at any time—all bullets bear your name, all cars are there to crush you, any balcony could give way; more disaster seemed only logical. And then, as in Dorothy’s dream, all these people I grew up with were there, too, some of them orphans also, most but not all of us believing that what we had been given was extraordinary, that it was time to tear or break down, ruin, remake, take and devour. This was San Francisco, you know, and everyone had some dumb idea—I mean, wicca?—and no one there would tell you yours was doomed. Thus the public nudity, and this ridiculous magazine, and the Real World tryout, all this need, most of it disguised by sneering, but all driven by a hyper-awareness of this window, I guess, a few years when your muscles are taut, coiled up and vibrating. But what to do with the energy? I mean, when we drive, Toph and I, and we drive past people, standing on top of all these hills, part of me wants to stop the car and turn up the radio and have us all dance in formation, and part of me wants to run them all over.”
Dave Eggers is a terrifically talented writer; don’t hold his cleverness against him. What to make of a book called A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: Based on a True Story? For starters, there’s a good bit of staggering genius before you even get to the true story, including a preface, a list of “Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of This Book,” and a 20-page acknowledgements section complete with special mail-in offer, flow chart of the book’s themes, and a lovely pen-and-ink drawing of a stapler (helpfully labeled “Here is a drawing of a stapler:”).
But on to the true story. At the age of 22, Eggers became both an orphan and a “single mother” when his parents died within five months of one another of unrelated cancers. In the ensuing sibling division of labor, Dave is appointed unofficial guardian of his 8-year-old brother, Christopher. The two live together in semi-squalor, decaying food and sports equipment scattered about, while Eggers worries obsessively about child-welfare authorities, molesting babysitters, and his own health. His child-rearing strategy swings between making his brother’s upbringing manically fun and performing bizarre developmental experiments on him. (Case in point: his idea of suitable bedtime reading is John Hersey’s Hiroshima.)
The book is also, perhaps less successfully, about being young and hip and out to conquer the world (in an ironic, media-savvy, Gen-X way, naturally). In the early ‘90s, Eggers was one of the founders of the very funny Might Magazine, and he spends a fair amount of time here on Might, the hipster culture of San Francisco’s South Park, and his own efforts to get on to MTV’s Real World. This sort of thing doesn’t age very well—but then, Eggers knows that. There’s no criticism you can come up with that he hasn’t put into A.H.W.O.S.G. already. “The book thereafter is kind of uneven,” he tells us regarding the contents after page 109, and while that’s true, it’s still uneven in a way that is funny and heartfelt and interesting.
All this self-consciousness could have become unbearably arch. It’s a testament to Eggers’s skill as a writer—and to the heartbreaking particulars of his story—that it doesn’t. Currently the editor of the footnote-and-marginalia-intensive journal McSweeney’s (the last issue featured an entire story by David Foster Wallace printed tinily on its spine), Eggers comes from the most media-saturated generation in history—so much so that he can’t feel an emotion without the sense that it’s already been felt for him. What may seem like postmodern noodling is really just Eggers writing about pain in the only honest way available to him. Oddly enough, the effect is one of complete sincerity, and—especially in its concluding pages—this memoir as metafiction is affecting beyond all rational explanation. —Mary Park