A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

A few pages into Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I was worried I was going to be very annoyed for 400+ pages. My naive thoughts ranged from “What a boasty title!” to “Will he ever shut up?” to “This guy needs an editor with a strong command over punctuation.” And then it hit me: All stream-of-consciousness work since 2000, when AHWOSG was published, including my own without realizing it, can be traced back to this, for lack of a better term, heartbreaking work of staggering genius. It’s just that. It’s brilliant. And we’re all trying to be Dave Eggers, and most of us are failing miserably.

Is it possible to be in love with a book? If so, I might be. The feeling extends a bit to its author, of course, the brain behind it. But I feel something very strong for this book because, even though I’ve been fortunate enough not to experience the incredible, daunting challenges that 22-year-old Eggers had to face—watching both his parents die and assuming the responsibility of raising his much-younger brother—I connected with it on a level I’ve not really reached with a book before. The way he writes just makes sense to me, even though he alternates time periods, pens fake interviews where he’s both the questioner and the answerer, and speaks to himself as the voice of reason he hopes to impart onto his younger brother. Maybe my brain is structured similarly to his. (I can dream, anyway.)

Let me start with one of his jokes. Eggers is hilarious in a very observant, intelligent way. Here’s how he describes President Clinton (p. 288): “He speaks like a president, not always authoritative or anything but he can form sentences, complex sentences with beginnings and ends, subordinate clauses—you can hear his semicolons!”

The book is brimming with lines like that, lines that make you reevaluate your own observational skills. With each of Eggers’ subordinate clauses, he adds a more obscure vocabulary word or a clearer description or a more creative metaphor.

It’s also brimming with one-liner truths so profound that you wonder how you got through life not thinking about them before. (Maybe that’s just me.)

  • On the babble his mother spoke in her dying days :”All words will be considered her last, until they are followed by others.” (p. 43)
  • On the view from his rental in Berkeley: “From our windows, from our deck it’s a lobotomizing view, which negates the need for movement or thought—it is all there, it can all be kept track of without a turn of the head.” (p. 51)
  • On the types of people with stories worth telling on television: “…my feeling is that if you’re not self-obsessed you’re probably boring.” (p. 201)
  • On the types of people that end up impacting your life: “The only people who get speaking parts are those whose lives are grabbed by chaos…” (p. 424)

Incredible, right? His elegance is so effortless. And so is his verbosity, for that matter. His mind must be constantly cluttered with words, though he clearly has a successful organization method in place. Of course, Eggers is aware of his own tendency to exhaust, verbally, and he anticipates all possible iterations of negative feedback with a section in the (lengthy/100% worth reading) introduction, entitled “The Knowingness about the Book’s Self-Consciousness Aspect.” Here’s an excerpt:

While the author is self-conscious about being self-referential he is also knowing about that self-conscious self-referentiality… Further, he is fully cognizant, way a head of you, in terms of knowing about and fully admitting the gimmickry inherent in all this, and will preempt your claim of the book’s irrelevance due to said gimmickry by saying that the gimmickry is simply a device, a defense, to obscure the black, blinding murderous rage and sorrow at the core of this whole story…

He’s also aware of how self-indulgent he is, particularly with that aforementioned Q&A narrative style. He employs this while describing his interview for The Real World (p. 197).

This is a device, this interview style. Manufactured and fake.
It is.
It’s a good device, though. Kind of a catchall for a bunch of anecdotes that would be too awkward to force together otherwise.

Pardon the contrived, shaky metaphor, but Eggers opened a window on a perfectly sunny day. He wrote something that needed to be written—the audiences and the market were craving something like this, someone who could be brutally honest a voice no one had ever heard before. It’s truly inspirational. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said to myself, “Today’s the day I start writing my book.” As an aspiring writer, it’s easy to compare yourself to published authors and feel instantly inadequate. But Eggers doesn’t make you feel that way at all, despite his immense, insurmountable literary talents—he seems just like one of us, except he had the fortitude to motivate himself on the most opportune days—to open that window on that sunny day—and let the light in. The result was a radiant beam, AHWOSG. This passage (p. 269) in particular, where he’s at the hospital dealing with a friend’s overdose, captured that attitude perfectly. He knew he could write something great, but he knew he’d have to be aware of it as it was happening in order to make the finished product truly staggering:

I’ll convey that while I’m living things very similar to things I’ve seen happen before, I will be simultaneously recognizing the value in living through these things, as horrible as they are, because they will make great material later, especially if I take notes, either now, on my hand, with a pen borrowed from the ER receptionist, or when I get home.

That’s something I’ve thought about a lot, too. I take those same notes, mostly in my phone, and I constantly question their significance. Are they worth writing about? Will anyone care about my story? Before all of his family tragedy, Eggers was just a guy. He didn’t choose to experience trauma—it overtook him and it changed the course of his life. 22 has come and gone for me, and I’ve experienced light trauma at worst. I’m lucky. I have a choice. But I still haven’t opened that window on the sunny day, because I’ve allowed myself to believe that enough light is shining in without going through the effort of getting up and heaving it open. Eggers is actively inspiring me to write my own story, even if it undoubtedly pales in comparison to his.

Another reason why he inspires me is because he spent his 20s exactly where I spent mine. Roughly the same age range, too. At 22, I was 4 years into my stint in the Bay Area, and ready for a change of scenery from the shitty Berkeley apartments I’d been hopping around. I spent the next 4 in San Francisco, and one after that in Oakland. I didn’t have a little brother in tow, but I did always have some intangible force holding me back from truly enjoying the place. Eggers says something about the landlord for his workspace on p. 169 that I think applies to much of my nine years there: “But it’s not like anyone here, in San Francisco, in this building, is going to tell you you’re wasting your time.”

Pulling that quote out might make me sound ungrateful. I’m not. Without San Francisco, I wouldn’t have any friends, really. Maybe one or two. The Bay Area made the list of people I care about frustratingly long. But it also is, and always will be, the backdrop to a time that I wish I could do over. Dave and Toph [spoiler alert] leave the Bay at the end of the book, and I completely understand why. It’s the same reason why I left, too. As long as you’re surrounded by reminders of your past, you’ll never be able to create a future for yourself. Even though D & T used Berkeley and San Francisco to escape the pain of their parents’ deaths, the Bay was riddled with memories of their adolescence and emerging adulthood. There’s pain there, too.

I’m going back to the Bay for the first time since January in August, and I’m trying to come up with a list of things I want to do. Dave had a similar experience (p. 359) when he returned home to Chicago for a few days, a while after his parents passed:

The idea, I suppose, is the emotional equivalent of a drug binge, the tossing together of as much disparate and presumably incompatible stimuli as possible, in a short span, five days, together constituting a sort of socio-familial archaeological bender, to see what comes of it, how much can be dredged up, brought back, remembered, exploited, excused, pitied, made known, made permanent.

So far my list is 0 items long. The list of people, though, is long and possibly unmanageable. And I have no doubt that there will be a multitude of memories dredged up, reminding me why I left, convincing me to stay, implying that I made a mistake moving. But I’m comforted knowing that Eggers voiced his conflicted thoughts about this experience and wrote the best blueprint imaginable for experiencing it, which is to say, there is no blueprint. And, go figure, he ended up back in San Francisco. I’m not saying I will, too, but after reading AHWOSG and after being away from it for 6 months, I sure do miss it. Whatever “it” is.