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Book Review: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (2/5)

23 Jul

I’ve read a fair number of Eggers works and each one seems to be distinctly different from all the others. As such, they’re a bit hit and miss with me. There are some I really enjoy and others that are just ‘bleh’ but very few that I don’t enjoy. I guess there’s a first time for everything because this one just wasn’t a winner with me. It’s sad that it’s the author’s memoir.

Cover image via Goodreads

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

Other books by Eggers reviewed on this blog:

A Hologram for the King (and Movie Review)
The Circle (and Movie Review)
Zeitoun (and Book Club Reflection)

Summary from Book Rags:

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a memoir by magazine editor Dave Eggers. The book tells the story of how Dave’s parents died of cancer within five weeks of each other and left Dave and his siblings custody of their seven year old brother, Toph. Dave tells his story with his trademark satire dripping from every word, allowing the reader to follow him on the ride from total irresponsibility to maturity and acceptance. This memoir is memorable and indeed heartbreaking, leaving the reader touched and yet strangely amused.

I loved parts of this book and there were other parts I struggled to get through. I thought the stories of being a father/brother and trying to be a 20-something while being in charge of his brother were great. I thought that was going to be the focus of the book, really. But there were parts where the way Eggers told the story drove me crazy. The extended (and fake) interview with The Real World for example. I’ll go into detail more but the back-and-forth nature of the storytelling made it hard for me to enjoy as a whole and led me to rate it lower than I felt parts of it deserved.

The life Eggers portrayed seemed very realistic to me. People do their best and sometimes that best doesn’t seem great from the outside or looks like failure to some people. Eggers dealt with his criticism in a weird way sometimes, lying about Toph to make himself laugh at the expense of his friends. But it was how he needed to cope. It was how he could keep doing his best. It was right for him. People need to be selfish sometimes and do what’s best for them to keep moving forward and I saw that in Eggers portrayal of himself and his family from time to time.

I liked Toph best and I wish we’d gotten a little more about him in the story. He was in a very difficult position for the majority of the story. He was likely raised like an only child, with his next oldest sibling being 13 years his elder. When Toph was forming a lot of his memories, Beth and Bill would have been out of the house and Dave would have been in high school. I’m going to guess their mother doted on him based on her personality and the one scene we have where they interact. I think the death of his parents would have been much harder on Toph than we’re led to see in this story. I wish we’d been able to see that and his coping more.

I think the way Dave felt when parenthood was thrust on him was very relatable. He didn’t know what to do but he was going to do his best to do it. It reminds me of when you start a new job and have to jump in with both feet and find your footing before you slip. Dave tried really hard and was clearly worried about Toph very often. Granted, my brother is two years younger than me, but I never worried about him that much though I didn’t have to take as much responsibility for him. I felt it was really admirable.

Dave Eggers
Image via

Dave doesn’t tell us how he felt about his father at first. It comes throughout the book in chunks and I liked how he did it that way. I thought it revealed a lot about his family and how they projected themselves that he wouldn’t talk about this earlier in the book. You learned about the siblings and how they got along well before you know how their parents’ relationship was tested. I felt this added a layer to the book because it was something you might not know about the Eggers even if you were a friend, something you’d have to come to learn the way I did as a reader.

There were parts of the book that got ‘too meta’ for me. The biggest being the Real World interview which we find out while reading it is not anything like the real interview but a way for Dave to tell us more about his family. That felt cheap and unlike a lot of the times that Dave’s humor made me laugh, this made me angry. I wanted to get through that section fast but it took me longer and longer the more frustrated I got.

Memoirs tend to focus on a pivotal part of someone’s life and I think Dave picked a very change-fraught part of his life and the lives of his siblings to cover. Toph had to learn to take his brother serious as a parent figure while Dave had to learn to be a father and still be a 20-something single guy. He was a friend and a brother and a parent. They had to figure out their roles and how they could work together to still be a family and support each other.

Writer’s Takeaway: Dave is clearly a guy who likes to have fun, as he shows us in his interactions with Toph and his friends. I didn’t always agree with his sense of humor and the things he found funny. That was fine with me when it was him telling jokes about Might, but it was something different when it was him pulling a fast one on me as his reader. I didn’t like the dream/reality jumbles that weren’t explained, the meta-discussion with John, or (again) the Real World interview. I felt like I was the butt of his jokes and it annoyed me.

I’m sad to make this my lowest Eggers rating. Two out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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