Thursday, July 11, 2019

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
by Dave Eggers
Vintage, 2001, 437 pgs. Biography

What happens when you become an orphan and a parent all at once in your early twenties? If you're Dave Eggers, you migrate around California with your kid brother, live large like two irresponsible teenage runaways, found three literary magazines, and take advantage of the sugary sympathies of neighbors, family friends, and strangers. Then, ten years later, you write all about it. In this account of the years after his parents died, Eggers gets into the nitty-gritty of how he and his brother live, giving a comprehensive list of eleven-year-old Toph's ultimate frisbee maneuvers, drawing diagrams of his apartment's layout to acquaint the reader with the spaces he inhabits, and describing in detail his various daydreams about various pretty girls.

The resulting memoir is like a night sky: full of separate dazzling bits and pieces that constellate together beautifully like a connect-the-dots, and gradually form a grand tableau that invites the reader's gaze. But don't get me or Eggers wrong--the very title of this book hints at Eggers' sense of irony which gently negates and pokes fun at his project and prevents bathos from leaking in. The narrator and his characters are, after all, funny, honest, and thus so charismatic. While it's clear Eggers' creative impulses sometimes compromise the pure truth of his story, the whole thing exudes a feeling of authenticity to life and human beings. Besides, what is nonfiction anyway but a history conditioned by subjectivity? The postmodern period that this book came out of proved that--more or less.

If you like Jonathan Safran Foer and David Foster Wallace, or other genre-bending memoir-novels like Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, check out A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.


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