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A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

By FIggy | Books | August 25, 2009 |

By FIggy | Books | August 25, 2009 |

I don’t know if I’m the right audience for this book. I was a very pop-obsessed teen in the 90s, living in Latin America and just as far away as I could be from the San Francisco/MTV in its hey-day culture that surrounds Dave Eggers’ story. Of course that’s not all that this admittedly great book is about, but I felt like I was missing out on something by not being to connect to what is such an important aspect of Eggers’ life. I suppose to those who grew up with that sort of life it’s a great nostalgia trip, but for me it meant detachment from the work and just an overall desire for him to talk about something else. Because everything else is so deeply emotional and poignant that it made the lighter parts a bit frustrating to get through.

Eggers starts out his memoir with a hilarious, lighthearted but meaningful introduction. It sets up the friendly, off-the-cuff tone that remains through the rest of the book, as if he’s right there talking to you—I’ve never seen the guy but I could imagine the picture on the back gesturing with his hands as he talked. It’s a great set up, and makes the first few chapters even more of a kick in the gut. Because the memoir proper starts out with a truly heart-wrenching passage detailing Eggers’ mother dying from stomach cancer, only a few weeks after their father has died. It’s one of the saddest, most painful things I have ever read, and it’s Eggers tone of trying-desperately-hard-to-be-lighthearted-about-it that really gets to you. It’s brutal, really, and it marks a complete change in Eggers’ life.

Eggers is left in charge of his 9-year-old brother, Toph. Barely in his 20s and adrift in life, Eggers does his best to be a brother, a friend and a parent to Toph. His sister and older brother help, but for the most part it’s the two of them trying to get along, with Eggers alternating between attempts to be responsible and ways to have as much fun as possible with Toph. These are some of the best parts of the book, as I was alternatively horrified and amused at Eggers’ attempts at raising his kid brother. Eggers is honest and clearly loves his brother to death, and you can feel his fear of making some huge mistake with the poor kid.

Then he starts talking about life in San Francisco and his job at Might Magazine. This is where the book lost me. While everything dealing with his family was moving and hilarious, the parts dealing with his ‘career’ honestly just bored me. I guess maybe you have to have been the “revolutionary” counter-culture fighter in their 20s to really get it, or maybe those types just bug me. All I know is that the book really dragged for me there, losing the momentum it had started with.

This isn’t a book for everyone. Eggers has a very loose style, with each chapter written in a different way—as an interview, as a long confusing rant, as an emotional confession—and it’s full of great little moments and stories. But it might frustrate you if you like something more straight forward. But all in all it was a fun book, with possibly the best title of all time. So all I can say is check it out, you might end up loving it. Or not. But give it a chance.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Figgy’s reviews, check her blog, A Gut Reaction.

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