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A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
I was wandering back and forth down aisles of books hoping a title would catch my eye. I don't know that there has ever been another title as ambitious and arrogant as A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. So I had to grab it.
This was the first novel by author Dave Eggers who, at the time, was dabbling with launching a magazine in San Francisco and navigating the internet craze.
This is an autobiography. But there's more to it. It's charming and self-deprecating, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading every word—and by every word I mean every single word. See, I'm that person who actually looks on that one page with all the publishing info and Library of Congress filing position. To my surprise I found a not only a Kinsey scale pinpointing how straight/gay Eggers is but also other little informational tidbits.
How I wish that I had purchased this book the day it came out, in its first printing. Why? Well I'll tell you. The guy actually used real names of his friends and family which isn't so odd really, but he also included their phone numbers! So people who wanted to say hi or ask a question, they could just make a quick call. Subsequent printings had the information removed, with editorial notes explaining the inclusion and exclusion of the numbers. Strangely enough, only one person ever got a phone call.
Another different aspect about this novel was the offer a disk with the entire text of the book available for editing. Don't like the dialogue? Go ahead and change it. Just mail in your request.
Also found inside are goofball drawings that Dave and his brother, Christopher, draw at various times, and there is also a drawing of a whale sighting as Dave was kayaking in San Francisco Bay.
What else? There is also a section explaining why this or that chapter was written or what parts you can probably skip if you're in a hurry and why the dialogue was a bit more sophisticated than what they really sound like. As in, who wants to read a book where everyone just says, "Dude? Dude!" and sound like idiots.
So what's this book about? I suppose I should get to that. It's a journey with no end. It begins with the recollection of the home he grew up in, with his mother laying on the couch, coughing up green smelly phlegm into a plastic receptacle. His mom had cancer and spent her last days watching TV and being, well, kind of gross. He doesn’t pull his punches when it comes to describing how he felt watching his mother die and what cancer does to a person.
Within weeks of his mother's death, his father collapses in the driveway and also dies. Of cancer.
After the funerals, Dave, a 21-year old college student, packs up himself and his 7-year old brother Christopher and moves out of Chicago with their sister Beth and into San Francisco and responsibility.
Dave Eggers writes really well and he is all over the place. What I mean is, the guy can go from talking about being a "parent" to thinking of being an orphan and four other thoughts that follow, and Eggers doesn't leave any of it out. Every thought—every bit of rage or joy or disgust.
Page after page of hanging out with friends, trying to find a job or an apartment, youthful zeal and rebellion while trying to be the "dad" for Toph (Christopher's nickname).
I don't want to sound dismissive or give the appearance that this is all about some self-obsessed guy who has too much time in his own head, even though that's true, but it's just more. The guy can write. In turn this read is sad and hilarious and very dark.
How does a person laugh at cancer? Or laugh at a friend who took a header off a balcony and ends up brain damaged? Or write that your own brother stinks like pee and you're worried that he's gonna be that kid in school who wreaks? Who decides that sending out a press release that Adam Rich, star of the old show Eight is Enough, is dead? Well, that would be Dave Eggers, the fella who thought that writing his life's story at age 29 was a good idea. Turns out he was dead on.
There is a heavy dose of cynicism and wit to be found from a guy whose main goal of going to the Parent Teacher night at Toph's school is to find a single mother to bang. On the other hand, Eggers is so heavily self-aware that he gets how pretentious he might sound and happily shares where in the novel to focus for the most enjoyment while also letting us know how he spent the advance money from the publisher.
The guy draws a floor plan of his apartment to include—along with a stapler. A stapler? Yeah, why not.
I can see where some people might be confused by the uniqueness of this book and I'm thinking that people over the age of 40 probably won't really understand where this pop culture riddled media/internet freak might be coming from.
I loved this book, I was delighted with the depth of darkness. You know what else? I came away thinking that Dave Eggers is probably an asshole and not someone I'd want to hang with. But I'd not blink before handing over more money to buy another bit of his work; I just wouldn't lay out any cash to buy him a beer.