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Friday, May 24, 2024
Photo Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Photo Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Dave Eggers' memoir is a heart-starting work of staggering self-awareness

Last fall, I took the semester off due to increasingly serious depression. While I planned on doing something productive to help me recover, my days usually consisted of sleeping until 3 p.m., not getting out of bed until 5 p.m., drinking excessive amounts of pre-made iced coffee with added protein as if by being extra alert (read: anxious and jittery), I could make up for my oversleeping, and contemplating my myriad of problems until around 2 a.m., when I would drive to the 24-hour Woodman’s on the other side of town to replace my empty carton of iced coffee. Once at Woodman’s, I’d circle the whole store a few times with a cart containing two or three items, avoiding the gaze of the people stocking the shelves while wondering what they thought of me. And of course, being the self-absorbed writer-type, I spent much of the time thinking about how I would turn this experience into a story (this isn’t it). I’d imagine myself telling the story, but also telling people about imagining myself telling the story, until there was an endless regress of telling and imagining. Self-awareness is in, I thought.


It was after I returned from one of these late-night/early-morning coffee runs that I decided to pick up a book I’d read years earlier, but barely remembered: Dave Eggers’ semi-fictional memoir, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” The title is both ironic hyperbole and accurate description. Eggers recounts the death of both of his parents from cancer a month apart from each other, while he was in college, and how he moved from Illinois to California with his eight-year-old brother, Toph, whom he’d raise. The book is tragic, beautiful, dark and, most of all, funny.

To give you a sense of this, the preface includes a list of “Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of this Book” mostly detailing the many parts that can be skipped. Such as: “4. Actually, many of you might want to skip much of the middle, namely pages 239-351, which concern the lives of people in their early twenties, and those lives are very difficult to make interesting, even when they seemed interesting to those living them at the time.”


Before the actual text of the book begins, Eggers also includes guides to symbols in the book, a flow chart of various thoughts relating to death, a list of his payment and expenses for writing the book and a random, Vonnegut-esque, now semi-iconic drawing of a stapler. Now if someone were simply describing this to me, I might think it was gimmicky, but it works. When I read it last winter it made me laugh out loud, which given how poor my mental health was, is saying something.


One of the book’s other strengths is how intense and charged the prose is. If I were to describe the writing in Eggers-like terms, I would say something like “electric” or “manic-depressive,” followed by some kind of self-effacing (perhaps parenthetical) aside letting you know that the writing (or the writer) is modest (but also tragic, youthful, and flawed). Having Eggers’ energizing voice running through my head during my waking hours, while not exactly healthy, is still a step up from where I was before I started reading the book.

As foreshadowed, the greatest strength of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” is its self-awareness. Eggers uses a variety of narrative devices to this effect, such as times when his younger brother Toph breaks the fourth wall of the book to address Eggers the writer rather than Eggers the protagonist. The best example is when Eggers interviews to be on MTV’s “The Real World.” When introducing the interview Eggers responds to a comment about his hometown, Lake Forest: “Really?” I say, feeling a format change coming, one where quotation marks fall away and a simple interview turns into something else, something entirely so much more. “It’s just a little suburb, about seventeen thousand people. I’m surprised that—” And that is precisely what follows. In the text of the “interview,” Eggers fully acknowledges its use as a narrative device and “[k]ind of a catchall for a bunch of anecdotes that would be too awkward to force together otherwise.” He goes on to say: “[T]his format makes sense … squeezing all these things into the Q&A makes complete the transition from the book’s first half, which is slightly less self-conscious, to the second half, which is increasingly self-devouring.”


And true to his word, it is.

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The interesting thing is that by inhabiting Eggers’ self-devouring point of view for a few hours everyday, I was able to escape my own. Eggers’ commentary on a generation’s self-obsession became a means of gaining a new perspective on mine. The irony with which he portrayed his pain, helped me to stop romanticizing my own. I got up a little earlier. I started reading again. I stopped thinking about how to tell a sad story, and how to start living a happy one.

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