Naming his first book A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS is an audacious move that puts an author in the unenviable position of having a lot to live up to. Fortunately, Dave Eggers is well up to the task. He'd have to be to consider writing his memoirs at the tender age of 29. You're lead to wonder what someone that age could possibly have lived through that would be worth telling.
To start with, when Eggers was 21, both of his parents died five weeks apart, of separate cancers, leaving him with custody of his eight-year-old brother Toph (short for Christopher). Both brothers soon move, with their older sister Beth, from Chicago to San Francisco, where Eggers and some high school friends start the alternative magazine Might. But even in San Francisco they can't escape tragedy: a friend tries to commit suicide, and another friend's girlfriend dies suddenly. Dave and Toph now live in Brooklyn, where Eggers publishes McSweeney's, a literary quarterly.
Throughout the story, Eggers cuts the pathos with a quirky wit, keeping the reader alternately crying and laughing. His unique situation of being young, hip, single, and a parent leads to some memorable scenes, such as the one in which he tries to score at Open House at Toph's school. "My goal, a goal I honestly thought was fairly realistic, was to meet an attractive single mother and have Toph befriend the mother's son so we can arrange playdates, during which the mother and I will go upstairs and screw around while the kids play outside."
In another chapter, Eggers lists all the reasons for which a woman won't be asked on a second date. If she "expresses any reservations about bringing Toph along...questions anything about the state of the house...does not ask about the passed-on parents...assumes that it was a car crash..." she's likely to be labeled a "bad person." His parents' deaths haunt Eggers. He is torn between maintaining their possessions, and thus their memory, or tossing everything out and starting fresh. "I want to save everything and preserve all this but also want it all gone --- can't decide what's more romantic, preservation or decay." In a failed attempt to make it onto MTV's "The Real World," Eggers is interviewed by one of the show's producers. A transcript of the interview reveals his father's alcoholism and the shadow it cast on his family. Eggers is determined to be a better parent to Toph than his were to him, but isn't above a little "experimenting."
Eggers uses a variety of devices like the transcript, a menu of the 8 different meals he and Toph eat, and drawings to help him tell his story. His sense of irony is sharply intact, yet he manages to temper his cynicism. Very aware of his sometimes too-clever style, Eggers disarms the reader by pointing it out right from the start. The preface includes sections on Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of this Book ("You can also skip the table of contents, if you're short of time"), a list of the major themes of this book ("The Toph Dialectic II: He serving as both magnet and, when the need arises, wedge vis-à-vis relations with women"), a flow chart on the structure of the book (available as a wall chart for $5), an accounting of the ways the publisher's advance was spent, an incomplete guide to symbols and metaphors, and a pretty nifty drawing of a stapler.
A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS is an astonishing debut. But still, there's that title. Heartbreaking? Definitely. Staggering? Sure. Genius? I'd say.
Reviewed by Liz Keuffer on February 13, 2001