It’s been a long time since I read a book that made me feel so downright guilty for not liking it. Quite honestly, I’m torn over the position of this review. On one hand, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a pointless, blathering work of youthful self-indulgence; on the other, it’s a testament to the victory of the human spirit in the face of cruel, absurd tragedy. Oops. The latter half of the sentence I just wrote would make memoirist Dave Eggers gag. You don’t need to look past the book’s title to glean its satirical edge. But Eggers is so full of candor and reckless energy, so determined to throw literary mores to the wind and propel by his own in-your-face opinion and feeling, that his decisively brave book ends up feeling like an unfiltered accumulation of impulses.
Of course, such untidiness is partially the point, because when Eggers was in his early 20s, he experienced unimaginable tragedy. Not one but both of his parents died of cancer within weeks of each other, leaving Dave and his older sister Beth to fend for themselves and raise their 8-year-old brother Toph. On a tide of bewildered grief, the siblings escape from suburban Illinois to Berkeley, hungry for California sun and a drastic change of scenery. Dave and Toph move into a rented house together (Beth goes to law school) and begin the unthinkable process of moving forward with their lives. The brothers’ relationship is one of the most important elements of the memoir, and Eggers supplies with most minute and endearing details of their daily life together: their weekly menus (“The Saucy Beefeater” on Mondays), their sword fights and spitting wars, their bedtime conversation. Dave is unabashed in his adoration of Toph, and obsesses over him in a manner normally reserved for parents. (One particularly funny segment involves Dave frantically scrambling home from a date because of totally irrational fears that the babysitter has murdered Toph.)
The second grounding force of the book is California itself. Fleeing to the Golden State in search of new identity, of adventure, of wealth or success, is certainly nothing new, but somehow Eggers manages to make it fresh. Anybody who’s spent any time at all in the Bay Area knows its seductiveness: the grand bridges spanning sparkling water, the buttery sunshine, the dramatic hills, and the green, green everywhere. It’s an easy place to wax poetic about, but Eggers is truly drunk on it. There is something poignant and childlike in his total exuberance over California, something so uncyncial that it’s impossible to disdain. “Only intermittently does it seem like an actual place of residence and commerce, with functional roads and sensible buildings,” he writes. “All other times it’s just whimsy and faith ...it’s always a kind of adventure in faded Technicolor.”
So the book has some great characters, a palpable sense of place, some beautiful language. And you know what? It’s mostly boring. Don’t get me wrong—Dave Eggers is a phenomenally smart guy. You may already know him as the founder of alt-magazines Might and McSweeney’s (the inspired inception of the former is a substantial part of this memoir). And he’s barely 30. It’s just that he’s too sensitive. His writing is flooded from all directions by self-awareness and scrutiny and wry sensibilities about the world. He’s the sort of person who has opinions about his own opinions. Alluding to a topic or brushing over it just isn’t an option—if it’s interesting enough to mention, Eggers will rigorously exhaust it. And that’s how he writes his book—with unapologetic indulgence into whatever he damn well pleases. So what we get is something rough and uneven, passionate but painfully rambling. Is page after page of monosyllabic, mundane dialogue really necessary? The exact, step-by-step route Eggers took from San Francisco to Berkeley one morning? No thanks. But Eggers still wins, because he knows he’s pissing me off, and he doesn’t care one bit. “So I could be aware of the dangers of self-consciousness,” he writes, “but at the same time, I’ll be plowing through the fog of all these echoes, plowing through the mixed metaphors, noise, and will try to show the core, which is still there, as a core, and is valid, despite the fog … There is always the core, and that can’t be articulated.”
An ironic statement, for sure, because all Eggers does is articulate. He talks and talks, and accomplishes incredible things along the way (his irreverent, low-budget journalistic ideas get national attention almost immediately). And yet, nothing means much. The book is packed with emotions ranging from despair to exhilaration, yet its final tone and statement are ineffable. Like Eggers says—The core can’t be articulated. So in the end, I don’t know what to say. Really, how can a person in his 20s write a memoir of tragedy and its aftermath, and make any compelling sense of it? Or a person of any age, for that matter? Understandably, Eggers can only work through anecdote and humor, through self-disclosure and satire. The book is too heartfelt to dislike, too messily amateur to love, and too original not to read. Or at least skim.