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One of My New Favorites,
This review is from: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Paperback)
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is the topsoil of a tragedy, the first layers of earth pushed aside in a painful personal excavation, where the treasure seems to remain deeply buried.
This first book by author Dave Eggers is a memoir. Eggers tells of the years following the deaths of both his parents - deaths which occurred within 5 weeks of one another - and how, at the age of 21, he became his younger brother Toph's guardian.
Eggers uses a highly self-conscious style of writing - confiding his fears of his own early death, terrors that something untoward will happen to his brother, or the sensations of his own flapping genitalia when running naked for a photo shoot. But his utter preoccupation with here-and-now mundanity or with imagined future horrors are but his shield against the true conscious experience of his own grief.
Although the story of AHWOSG rests upon the tragic reality of parental deaths, ironically there is no mourning. There were no burials, no gravestones, no remains to be grieved over. Soon after these deaths, Dave and Toph move from Lake Forest, IL to Berkeley. Dave nominally ensures that Toph is fed and clothed and schooled, but without embodied parental authority, "in a world with neither floor nor ceiling," the two live in semi-anarchy, enjoying the freedom to eat junk food and drive to the beach and play frisbee whenever the impulse might strike.
Unable to see logic in his parents' deaths, he sublimates his need for order and justice into the making of a magazine, Might. The mission of Might is to take "a formless and mute mass of human potential and...to mold it into a political force." This counter-cultural magazine is designed to be both provocative and empowering, but over time it becomes more shocking and in-your-face. Eggers's own rage and grief remain unresolved and become expressed editorially in Might, so much so that Toph asks him about his work "Where does anger like that come from?"
His failure to grieve his mother's death head-on is carried to his subsequent relationships with women. Girlfriends fade away inexplicably. Eggers does not react to his sister's marriage, a symbolic separation from family. The story line of the sudden, unexpected death of a minor female character dead-ends.
Eggers's failure to give us his grief directly in these pages is not a literary failure. The writing is strong and compelling. He is at his best when writing manic stream-of-consciousness passages about his fears of his mother's imminent death, his terror of having lost Toph at a hotel, his panic when accompanying a suicidal friend to the hospital. Here he is intimate and immediate, observing the profundities of possible death side by side with the ordinary details of television, of the slowness of elevators, or of the Conan O'Brien show. During these passages, one cannot read fast enough.
Throughout the book, Eggers repeatedly gives us passages wherein he and Toph toss a frisbee to one another. There is beauty and delight in keeping this little plastic disc afloat, keeping it soaring and sailing through the air. As long as the frisbee stays flying, there is hope, they are happy children, and they are immortal. This game of toss connects these brothers in a mythical mutual immortality.
Toph seems to serve as Eggers's talisman of hope, a beacon to the future where the past is too painful to confront. Beyond all the irony and self-consciousness (and looseness of the writing), AHWOSG is a wonderful book, certainly one worth picking up. Beside AHWOSG, another (much shorter, rougher) Amazon quick-pick I enjoyed is THE LOSER'S CLUB by Richard Perez.