Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers)

I'm a day late, but only because I was out of town. I'm still counting this as regularly scheduled.


I need to stop reading nonfiction. I loved this book, and think that, while not perfect, it is a stunning depiction of the insanity that accompanies everyday life, but a lot was lost on me as a reader who generally doesn't take to nonfiction as strongly as fiction or poetry. See, this is a memoir by a young man who lost both of his parents to cancer just before he finished college, and who then had to take care of his seven-year old brother. That's the synopsis, but it tells you almost nothing about this book. Dave Eggers basically just speaks to the reader—and sometimes himself—for 400 pages, and it's great. It's refreshing, it's honest, it's down to earth. During the acknowledgments, which are hilarious and prelude the book very well, Eggers actually tells readers to think of the book as a work of fiction if it makes it easier for them, or if they don't like reading nonfiction. I liked that suggestion, it being one of the many instances that Eggers breaks the fourth wall and is hyper self aware, but despite how good most of the writing is, it doesn't exactly work that way. The writing is remarkable, phenomenal, keeps you so engaged. Every time you begin to pull back from the story a little, or think something is a little contrived, a little absurd, Eggers agrees, and remarks on how contrived and absurd the situation is, how he doesn't believe it himself, how he's probably remembering incorrectly or possibly even lying. The voice of the narrator is astonishingly conversational, but in the end, that's almost one of the problems. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is fresh, it's wonderful, it's all these amazing things, but to be honest it also gets kinda boring. There were parts of this book where Dave Eggers was blowing my mind with how aware he was of what I was thinking, where my head was in terms of his writing, the story, the characters. I couldn't believe how accurate he could be. But there were other times when I honestly didn't really care at all, and only kept reading out of a dull sense of curiosity, not wanting to drop it in case there was some mesmerizing ending I'd be missing. There are times when Eggers is so honest that you almost hate him, and think that he really is a horrible person, and how can he treat his brother that way, which I think takes a lot of guts and a great deal of skill, but in a memoir, with no real plot, no real direction, it can leave the reader without any sense of why they're reading.

I enjoyed this book immensely. The things about it that were good were soooooooo good, but it took me a while to read, not because I didn't want to, but because it was so anecdotal. It jumps back and forth between time and location and mindset and all of these real things that the mind does while a person is driving along the Pacific Coast Highway so excited to play frisbee at the beach but what if we just drive off this cliff and I think we would make it we would probably make it just climb out the car windows and jump right before we hit the water but if we didn't make it what would happen and would a lot of people come to my funeral? would Sarah come to my funeral? oh man Sarah is so hot I should call her what a catch she was I haven't seen her since my mom died. Four hundred pages of that is easy to put down sometimes. And it's hard because there isn't always a real reason to pick the book back up. There are so many emotions, so many things to connect to, so many real moments, but I never found myself thinking, "I can't wait to get back to that book and find out what happens next!" Maybe that's just the product of it being a memoir, but I feel like memoirs can still have plot, drive, direction, story arcs. Life has story arcs sometimes. A big part of the book is the fact that Dave and his brother don't really have all that much to do. They're free. It's not a road trip book, or a story of self-discovery and overcoming tremendous adversity, or fulfilling one's dreams. It's a story about getting by, and how the author felt about getting by. Again, this might just be my reaction as someone who isn't a huge fan of nonfiction, and I did enjoy this book, I highly recommend it for a number of reasons, but I was expecting a little bit more than a unique and erratic narrator. It slows down a lot as you go further and further in and things begin to be repeated. Motives blur, characters jumble together, gain and lose significance. In this way it truly is evocative of real life, since you never really know what's going to happen, or who is still going to be important to you five years down the line, and I applaud that kind of truthfulness, but I wanted to see more of a journey, and I didn't get that.


A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
by Dave Eggers

We never really get to connect with any of the characters. Some recur, some don't, and we never get a good feel as to why. There's a lot of "we've been friends forever" but never any reason why certain people are more important than others. Some of the characters that are present throughout the entire book are never even described, just introduced by name and then referenced repeatedly.

So ridiculously original to me. Maybe someone else has written a memoir that's this erratic, this true to life, this close to the way I feel the human mind tends to work, but I've never seen it. I have to give Eggers credit for the strength of his ability to write brilliant narration.

Some people are going to think this is the most incredible book ever written. Some are going to think it's self-serving garbage. I can understand where both are coming from, but am myself stuck somewhere in the middle. It had its strengths, it had its weaknesses. A solid effort.


If you have any suggestions or requests for books to be reviewed, or would like to write a guest review yourself, remember you can always email me at, subject line "TDG: Review Suggestion" or "TDG: Guest Reviewer." I would love to get more people involved and see what the rest of the world thinks about some of these books!


  1. Or can I just write my suggestion here?

    Gang Leader for a Day
    By: Sudhir Venkatesh

    It's non-fiction though. I just finished it and loved it...but not sure if it's quite your style.

    However, i'm pretty sure Staggering Genius is one of Paul's favorite books. So I'll send him over to read this review soon.

  2. Skylight Books shelves "A Heartbreaking Work" under fiction. It's definitely a fine line with this one. I liked it a lot.


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