A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Updated June 26, 2020 | Infoplease Staff
Author:Dave Eggers
Publisher:Simon & Schuster

Taken at face value, the premise of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius would lead one to assume that the "memoir" based on a true story is a presumptuous, sentimental tear-jerker by a greedy writer exploiting tragedy to make a buck.

Hardly. If anything, A.H.W.O.S.G. is an aptly titled work of well, staggering genius. This high-octane, poignant memoir proves cathartic, meditative, and self-validating for Dave Eggers, who was 21 when both his parents succumbed to cancer. His father went first, his mother five weeks later. He and his siblings, Bill, 24, Beth, 23, and Toph, 8, had already decided that Dave, a recent college grad, would care for Toph.

The kids sold the house, most of their possessions, and followed Bill to California to start anew, leaving behind their comfortable, upper-middle-class Lake Forest, Chicago. (Eggers is quick to point out that the family was the "white trash" of the town.) Beth would begin law school, Bill would continue working at a California think tank, and Dave and Toph would seek out "everything we are owed."

Dave and Toph ended up in Berkeley, settling in a series of unsettling apartments selected mostly for their sock-sliding potential. (The best offered 30 feet of unfettered cruising.) Dave's conflicted role as parent/brother/twentysomething played out in contradictions: Toph was sent to private schools, yet his friends would comment, "How can you live like this," noting the lack of furniture and the abundance of spoiled food that accessorized the apartment. Dave attended Toph's Little League games, yet read him John Hersey's Hiroshima at bedtime. He painted monsters on Toph's ceiling to ward off bad dreams, while at Christmas he informed Toph that "Jesus died for your Christmas fun."

Dave's time was split between Toph and Might magazine, a San Francisco-based literary 'zine he launched with a group of high-school friends. The magazine's most memorable entry was a fabricated story that Eight Is Enough star Adam Rich had been murdered. (Even Toph thought it was a bad idea.) Might never seemed to find its voice, and its editors readily admitted to-and reveled in--its hypocrisy and sanctimony.

In fact, it's Eggers' honesty and insecurity that makes the memoir so compelling. He bared his soul in the book, and was not at all afraid to come off as at odds with himself, unhip, or tormented. Throwing his mother's cremains into Lake Michigan on her birthday, Eggers questions whether he's paying proper tribute to her:

"This is where she spent her last years, by the water. I start throwing faster and faster, grabbing and throwing, flailing almost, dust everywhere. My coat is snowed with dust. She is aghast. I am pathetic. This is what I've done. This is what it's come to-winging her remains into the lake."

Clearly, the period after his parents' death was one of soul-searching, confusion, and anger. Yet, Eggers was in fact grounded in a sense of reality that few 22 year olds can claim. His entire life boiled down to Toph, protecting him, sheltering him from anything that may recall the catastrophe, second-guessing his decisions in fear that they will send the boy down the wrong path. Even simple pleasures somehow evolved into fear and paranoia.

While playing Frisbee on the beach, one of Dave and Toph's favorite pastimes, Dave connects his trim physique to his ailing father's cancer-related weight loss:

"When I run I can feel the contracting of my muscles, the strain of my cartilage, the rise and fall of pectorals, the coursing of my blood, everything working, everything functioning perfectly, a body in peak form, albeit on the thin side, just a bit shy of normal weight, with a few ribs visible, which, come to think of it, might look weird to Toph, might look kind of anemic, might frighten him, might remind him of our father's weight loss, of the way his legs, as he sat at breakfast in his suit. . .his legs were like dowels under his flannel pants. . .now so baggy."

Dave made an effort to maintain some semblance of a social life, but he couldn't escape the constant worries endemic to parents. Leaving Toph with a sitter for his weekly night out, Dave envisioned Toph being molested or murdered by his caregivers.

Likewise, while he did embrace the slacker 'zine scene, which included sporting "creative facial hair," Dave was guided by his traditional sensibilities. He was mortified when his sister walked down the aisle to Kiss' "Beth" at her wedding, and was equally outraged when a fellow parent revealed that she let her 15 year old "fire up" joints at home.

With his "Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of This Book," lengthy preface and acknowledgements, and a flow chart of emotions, the comparisons to David Foster Wallace are inevitable. But Eggers, clearly a Wallace acolyte, is less self-indulgent than Wallace. Call his work D.F.W.-lite.

But A.H.W.O.S.G. is not to be taken lightly, nor is its author. It is a profound work from a young literary lion.

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