The problem with modern literature’s frequently found trope of “the atypical 20-something living in the city” is that we are forced to take the protagonist’s exceptional qualities of enlightenment or intellect or general novelty at face value. Their narration is trapped in the limited perspective of being 20-something. It is the acknowledgement of this cliche, the near-caricaturization of the trope, that makes Dave Eggers’ “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” so brilliant and enjoyable to read.
The post-modernist memoir follows a collection of anecdotes set in Eggers’ early 20s, kicking off the story with the deaths of both of his parents to unrelated cases of cancer in the span of two months. The novel opens with a jarringly graphic depiction of his mother’s decline (he had to hold her nose for hours to keep blood from seeping out), setting the stage for the wildly dramatic and candid account of the events that follow.
The reader is taken from one thread of consciousness to the next, from Eggers taking in and raising his eight-year-old brother Toph to an interview with MTV’s “The Real World.” The common theme, the thread that ties the events together, is the feeling of total vulnerability in how the story is told. Unlike the common trope, Eggers succeeds in making his story unique because, despite claiming throughout the novel that he is “the chosen one, the queen to their drones,” he doesn’t really believe it. He thinks he is different, rare and extraordinary — but also twisted, broken and unworthy. This is the contradiction that makes “Staggering Genius” so fascinating. It is the brutally honest account of a young person who wants to think of himself as superior, but can’t bring himself to truly believe it.
Eggers ends up raising Toph, trying to pull the best from unconventional and traditional methods of parenting. He both attends parent-teacher conferences and terrorizes his younger brother with kitchen knives and belt-whips. They eat pizza three meals a day and drive up the San Francisco coast at 100 miles an hour. Eggers, writing the novel only years after the events that it details took place, refuses to take himself too seriously. He acknowledges that he and his peers were little more than “young people pretending to be young.” He uses the removed viewpoint of a writer as a defense mechanism, seeing literary symbolism in the middle of a date with a girl from his past, “punctuating to anyone who might be watching” a dramatic stop in the middle of the road after coming across shocking news.
The novel is told in engaging, rampant hyperbole. The narration slides in and out of reality, making the nonfiction content seem all the more authentic, a true account of living as a walking tragic backstory. For pages on end, Eggers will entertain a fantasy conversation between himself and a far more scathing version of Toph. He describes how his comedy magazine tried to fake the murder of celebrity Adam Rich. But beyond the fluffy subject material of having his child-brother as a roommate, of writing satire, of dating in the Bay Area and living virtually responsibility-free day-to-day, the story often takes a darker turn, exposing the true effects of his past traumas. The bravado falls away, for just a moment, and readers are taken to the edge of Lake Michigan, where Eggers spreads his mother’s ashes. What he expected to be a fine mist, a floating farewell, turns out a mess, ashes sticking the sweat on his palms, getting caught underneath his feet, in a “painful, disgraceful, pathetic” attempt at respect.
There are two sides to this story: the sarcastic, endlessly witty, brave Eggers and the dark, pained and struggling man. Eggers acknowledges, even exemplifies the facade that comes along with being young, with being human. But he believes and seeks to impart to his readers that there is something unalienable that unites us. “The core is the core is the core. There is always the core that can’t be articulated.”
“A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” was certainly titled to showcase the ridiculous and hyperbolic nature of the story. However, the layers of the novel and the naked truth it exposes allow it to live up to its name. A whirlwind of a read, Eggers has succeeded in epitomizing what it is to be young, tired and true of heart.
Contact Anna Gumberg at anna,firstname.lastname@example.org .