Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

“Why do you want to be on The Real World?”
“Because I want everyone to witness my youth.”
“Isn't it gorgeous?”

“We are the bright new stars born of a screaming black hole, the nascent suns burst from the darkness, from the grasping void of space that folds and swallows--a darkness that would devour anyone not as strong as we. We are oddities, sideshows, talk show subjects. We capture everyone's imagination.”

“I like the dark part of the night, after midnight and before four-thirty, when it's hollow, when ceilings are harder and farther away. Then I can breathe, and can think while others are sleeping, in a way can stop time, can have it so - this has always been my dream - so that while everyone else is frozen, I can work busily about them, doing whatever it is that needs to be done, like the elves who make shoes while the children sleep.”

When I went to find a passage to copy to entice you readers to read this book (most of you probably already have; it was quite the darling of the literary world a few years back and I am terribly behind when it comes to the darlings of the literary world) I couldn’t narrow it down to just one. So I included three. The first one was a bit of pithy dialogue between the author/memoirist and a casting agent for The Real World. The second and third are examples of what I liked so much about this book – the thick, lustrous description sliding down the page like a model’s hair sliding down her back in a shampoo commercial. (In related news, think I could place in that “worst abuse of a simile” contest?) A downside of so much description is that this book progressed sloooooowly. It is engaging but definitely not a quick read, for me at least.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (AHWOSG) begins and also ends with the death of the author’s mother, after a protracted battle with cancer. The four Eggers kids have recently lost their father to the disease as well. Hard times for any family, but the three older Eggers children, of which Dave is the youngest at 22 must also contend with guardianship of their littlest brother, Topher. Dave eventually takes on Topher, and moves from suburban Illinois to San Francisco where they live for several years. This book is the account of the boys’ SF years. David is a struggling writer, working with friends to produce a magazine that sounds so hipster-pretentious I would have hated it if I was reading pretentious magazines in 1995. I was not; I was 10, the same age as Topher.

Dave has lots of adventures despite the fact that he is effectively a single parent in his twenties. The boys rent a series of apartments together, and Topher attends school. They play a lot of Frisbee on the beach. In the book, Eggers tends to project his feelings into his recounted conversations with Topher, injecting the dialogue with a sophistication and level of detail that would only come from a writer and not from a fifth-grade. This is okay because at the beginning of the book Eggers writes that the dialogue is not a precise rendering of actual conversation. While the events in the book did happen, Eggers cautions that the book must be considered only somewhat non-fiction because of certain liberties taken with dialogue and with the names of those involved.

I was really glad to read this book for several reasons, one being that it has been on my book shelf forever. My bookshelf is small and I have a lot of books so they are double stacked. The entire front section of books on each shelf are ones I own but have never read. I bought a lot of paperbacks at the Bulls Head in Chapel Hill with my One Card…sorry Mom, that’s why I kept running out of meal money in college. Now I refuse to buy any more books until I read some of the ones on my shelf (library books are still okay).

Overall, this book kind of dragged for me. The writing was obviously excellent, but the plot was meandering. Sometimes I wanted to be Eggers’ best friend and sometimes I couldn’t stand him, especially when he talked about his magazine or his sexual encounters (awk. ward.) I’m kind of late to the Dave Eggers game (I also own What is the What, but haven’t read it yet either) so maybe I’ll read one of his other books and see how that compares. Not gonna lie, Wild Things (out in October, the book cover is covered in fur, it’s a redo of Sendak’s classic but for young adults) looks interesting too.


Nihil Novum said...

Is the magazine The Believer or McSweeney's? They're both pretty awesome.

Padfoot and Prongs - Good Books Inc. said...

Yea I am kind of behind on the times seeing as I am still trying to read all the classics off of Times best list. However this is practically #1 on my TBR list once I finish with that. Amazing quote choice. This review has me literally aching to read this.

Meagan said...

the magazine is Might, which folded because of its awfulness. McSweeney's is cool

hamilcar barca said...

overall, i liked this book. but the entire MTV interview could've been eliminated and it would've been a much better read.