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100 Books in a Year: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers.

By Sophia | Books | March 12, 2009 |

By Sophia | Books | March 12, 2009 |

I must have been at least somewhat conscious of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers when it first came out in 2000. I was reminded of it recently and it sounded so familiar, and then when I picked it up in the library I knew I had at least flipped through it at a bookstore or seen it somewhere. Yes, maybe I should have read this book eight or nine years ago when it was the #1 National Bestseller, almost winning a Pulitzer, and when I was the same age as Dave Eggers at the beginning of his memoir. But I can be kind of clueless, sometimes completely oblivious to what is popular or well-known until it’s already blown over. Most of the time I feel I just accidentally stumble on books, music and movies that I like, and then I worry about all the others I haven’t found yet.

I searched this book out on a whim at the library, and it looked so interesting that after a moment of perusal, I was sucked in and had to check it out. The author, Dave Eggers, tells the story of the time he spent in Berkeley and San Francisco in his twenties after his parents’ death. Dave Eggers is only twenty-one and finishing up college when his mother and father die of cancer less than five weeks apart. His mother had been sick for quite awhile but his father’s cancer and death is more sudden and unexpected. Dave’s family now consists of his older brother Bill, his older sister, Beth, and his much younger brother Chris (who goes by Toph and is only seven-years-old). Beth, Dave, and Toph move to Berkeley where Beth goes to law school and Dave and Toph live together. Dave struggles with his own past and upbringing, dealing with the death of his parents, raising Toph, and figuring out what he’s going to do with his life—and all straight out of college.

Just the story of the two brothers’ lives after the death of their parents is tragic and fascinating. When I think of my maturity level when I graduated from college and the amount of pressure Dave Eggers must have been under, I do not understand how he managed to cope. But Eggers brings much more than just a straight re-telling of his personal tragedy: he is funny. The mundane but often hilarious details of his life and conversations as well as his random daydreams, and self-deprecating and often self-conscious statements that break into the middle of scenes add an entirely new dimension to the narrative. I was amused to find Egger’s rating on the sexual orientation scale graphically depicted on the copyright page along with his height, weight, and haircolor.

But there’s also more to the story than a simple recounting of the years with some tongue-in-cheek. Eggers sensitively explores why he’s even writing a story about his parents, his life, his friends. He wants to be powerful and important, to be well-known, and he often imagines himself as such. Is he just using his parents and some of his friends’ stories to gain fame or is there a greater good coming from this? Is the story helping him deal with his parents’ death? Most of the time when Eggers is challenging himself he does it through the dialogue between himself and another person: his brother or a friend. I could see myself easily being annoyed by this technique, but Eggers manages it so well that I found it a creative and interesting way to enlighten the reader about his inner thoughts.

One thing bothered me a little while I read the book, and even though I feel a bit like the politically-correct police here, I didn’t want to ignore it. Eggers was constantly pointing out the black man, black woman, or interracial couple in his life. Sometimes I was a little surprised and I wondered why he felt the need to mention that some neighbors of his, that were in no way a part of the story, were an interracial couple. Maybe he was just trying to show the difference between Berkeley and the very affluent, very white town where he grew up? Eggers also uses the phrase “run like an Indian” in places throughout the book, and it grated.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. Details are here and the growing number of participants and their blogs are here. And check here for more of Sophia’s reviews.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.