A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is exactly that, and it could not be heralded with a more subtle title. This stream of consciousness is cleverly disguised as a memoir, plunging us through the life events of Dave Eggers in a frantic adventure that would make even a professional psychologist nervous. Cast as the Tragic Person in the show of his life, Eggers explores a tangled myriad of human experience, from the reoccurring, perpetual deaths and near deaths of people known and loved, to the blissful nirvana of freestyle Frisbee. It is with enthusiasm that Eggers tells a tale seeped in emotional sophistication neatly disguised behind a wit of steel. This wit invokes effortless laugher that can jump from the pages at any moment, but around the corner, lurking and waiting, the reader finds that pity and sorrow are also, easily, within reach. Controversy and innovation are splayed out before us in vivid recollections of hazy events emphasized by ultra-liberal Californian backdrops, the perfect stages for capturing the excitement and freshness of a memoir that is just so much more than that.
The journey begins with hopeless struggle as the Eggers family is torn asunder by the twin deaths of both father and mother. Our hero is thus intertwined with the events of his brother Toph, also his trusty sidekick and narrative aide, as they struggle against the tide of a world gone mad. After leaving Chicago for Berkeley, we journey aimlessly through Eggers's mind as he professes to the hilarious details of his life, giving us insanely crisp views of obscure memories while, at the same time, leaving huge gaps open to imagination. From his youthful forays into the magazine business, to his over-the-top struggle against would-be Mexican thieves, the events of Eggers’s life are told in a manner befitting an entertainer unsure of whether he is acting out tragedy or comedy. Death is a theme common enough to invoke a certain synthetic reaction, a feeling of emotional weight that Eggers handles masterfully, bravely holding back wispy tendrils of depression. No, this is not an angst-filled rant against a life gone horribly wrong, but a flowering, beautiful story about what it means to be young and not-so-invincible.
The work itself, as Eggers will tell you, is split cleanly between "slightly self-conscious" and "increasingly self-devouring." This canyon is bridged by a clever, imaginary interview for MTV's Real World, which gradually becomes more made-up as Eggers reforms it into a literary tool. The rest of the memoir is chock-full of bizarre recurring elements, such as Toph's urine scented hat, carelessly driving past destinations, nakedness, and many painful blows to the head. These elements follow in the wake of powerful themes of youth, death, love and lovemaking. Exaggerated scenes and events that seem too weird and surreal to possibly have occurred are numerous and delightful. Overlapping layers of meaning hint at the Staggering Genius mentioned in the title, but much of this meaning is hidden inside the mind of the author, glossed over with humor and narrowly avoided with clever, delightful disguises.
"The cars flash around the turns of Highway 1, jump out from cliffs, all glass and light. Each one could kill us. All could kill us. The possibilities leap into my head - we could be driven off the cliff and down into the ocean. But fuck, we'd make it, Toph and I, given our cunning, our agility, our presence of mind. Yes, yes. If we collided with a car at sixty miles per hour on Highway 1, we could jump out in time. Yes, Toph and I could do that."
It is moments like this, scattered throughout the Heartbreaking Work, that truly give a sense of the mood. Always rebellious, youthful, invincible, yet surrounded by death and struggle, the adventures of Dave Eggers and his brother idealistically deny the world of adults: nothing is serious, nothing is sacred, nothing is rigid, nothing is impossible. On one hand, we are told that Dave and Toph are owed perpetual invincible youth because the world has taken so much from them. On the other hand, the story is constantly connecting with dying parents, dying coworkers, suicide and tragedy. It is this conflict that layers Eggers's memoir into an abstract story about two colliding worlds, yet at a more basic level we are caught up in the casual fearlessness of the main character and his brother.
"We are disadvantaged but young and virile. We walk the halls and the playground, and we are taller, we radiate. We are orphans. As orphans, we are celebrities. We are foreign exchange people, from a place where there still are orphans. Russia? Romania? Somewhere raw and exotic. We are the bright new stars born of a screaming black hole, the nascent suns burst from the darkness, from the grasping void of space that folds and swallows - a darkness that would devour anyone not as strong as we."
This is a perfect example of the themes and quality of writing that can be found throughout the book. Eggers's writing style is casual, vivid, and powerful. The imagery easily springs into our minds as we are transported into the author's thought process, taken along for every dip and curve of the roller coaster. It is almost as if we are entering Eggers's mind, watching his methods of thought, listening to his internal monologue. It is a rare gift he shares with us, an embarrassingly personal glimpse into life, raw and pure.
I must admit that this reviewer is enthralled and delighted in this masterpiece. While Eggers writes with a shameless honesty that many might consider to be an inflated ego, I find this refreshing viewpoint a more accurate representation of the way which all people secretly feel on the inside. I must admit to never having read a book that has delivered such an important message, and done so with such grace. I stumbled through the story in one sitting, so unable was I to put this book down. Eggers deals with topics that are so real and so important that this memoir is absolutely epic in scale, if not in size. Hanging on every word, there was not one point in the book that I had lost interest. I laughed, I cried, I shared complicated emotions with the author. I think this memoir is a rare gift, a grim testament to the heights one may achieve even surrounded by inevitable tragedy. Eggers raises more questions than answers, but I think that by doing so he is connecting with his readers on a very personal level. We, like him, will always experience tragedy in our lives. How we cope with that tragedy and how we survive is a question that is always difficult to answer. It is my not-so-humble opinion that A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a truly innovative guide to follow when seeking such profound answers.