A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Melissa Darcey
It’s quite sad for me to admit I don’t really have any experience with Dave Eggers. He’s always been number two on my to-read list and for some reason something else keeps finding its way to the number one spot. I finally became so embarrassed about not having ever read anything by him that I finally moved him up the list to spot number one.
I knew I had to start with the biggest of his works, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. While I’m not someone who has to read something just because someone else liked it, I tend to be curious about these bestsellers. I’m also a sucker for good titles and I feel the word “staggering” isn’t used enough.
Published in 2000, the (somewhat embellished?) memoir follows Dave Egger’s life when both of his parents die and he raises his brother, Toph, while figuring out his own future. It was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and named Book of the Year by Time Magazine and LA Times. If awards and lists mean anything to you, you’ve probably read it or want to read it. If awards don’t matter but you, like me, suffer from book shame and have yet to read Eggers, this is the one with which to start because not only is it his masterpiece, it’s pretty darn good.
The first half of AHWSG is Boxcar Children on Prozac. The reader witnesses humorous but depressing boys-are-so-messy situations as Dave and Toph adapt to their new relationship, balancing an orphan child-orphan child, older brother-younger brother and father-son bond. An MTV-style therapy session leads into the Augusten Burroughs almost-hard-to-believe memoir style with numerous “fuck, what am I going to do” rants.
There are many moments when Dave is so wrapped up in his mind and possible (that are, in reality, close to impossible) consequences for his actions that he goes into a one big breathed rant that would even make Faulkner search for a period. But it successfully conveys Dave’s over-thinking nature and sense of responsibility that comes with what drives the novel and is ultimately his heartbreaking story – he is forced to be a father to his brother at a young age.
But what keeps it believable and non-Herculean is that he still has his 23-year-old guy horniness, a need for occasional air from being a father, a secret desire to be on The Real World and hitting many obstacles in his attempt to be a twenty something mover and shaker via up-and-sort-of-coming magazine, Might.
I thought this book was poignant but with enough wit to make it a tender coming-of-age story without the Angela’s Ashes depression. The narration in the last 80 pages or so seems a bit erratic, almost as if Eggers felt forced to find the perfect bow tie to wrap up this 400 page present for the publisher. However, in the very end, he doesn’t give the reader a simple “they lived happily ever after” ending, which a memoir should never have, unless it’s about Oprah. All in all, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius has set me on journey to read Eggers’ other hopefully staggeringly genius works.
Melissa Darcey is a writer living in Los Angeles. She likes film, books, and the Bronte sisters. She is a strong supporter of the Oxford comma. You can chat with her on Twitter @MelissaDarcey.
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