Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Eggers)

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Dave Eggers, 2000
Knopf Doubleday
496 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780375725784

Well, this was when Bill was sighing a lot. He had decided that after our parents died he just didn't want any more fighting between what was left of us. He was twenty-four, Beth was twenty-three, I was twenty-one, Toph was eight, and all of us were so tried already, from that winter.

So when something world come up, any little thing, some bill to pay or decision to make, he would just sigh, his eyes tired, his mouth in a sorry kind of smile. But Beth and I...Jesus, we were fighting with everyone, anyone, each other, with strangers at bars, anywhere — we were angry people wanting to exact revenge. We came to California and we wanted everything, would take what was ours, anything within reach. And I decided that little Toph and I, he with his backward hat and long hair, living together in our little house in Berkeley, would be world-destroyers.

We inherited each other and, we felt, a responsibility to reinvent everything, to scoff and re-create and drive fast while singing loudly and pounding the windows. It was a hopeless sort of exhilaration, a kind of arrogance born of fatalism, I guess, of the feeling that if you could lose a couple of parents in a month, then basically anything could happen, at any time — all bullets bear your name, all cars are there to crush you, any balcony could give way; more disaster seemed only logical. And then, as in Dorothy's dream, all these people I grew up with were there, too, some of them orphans also, most but not all of us believing that what we had been given was extraordinary, that it was time to tear or break down, ruin, remake, take and devour.

This was San Francisco, you know, and everyone had some dumb idea — I mean, wicca? — and no one there would tell you yours was doomed. Thus the public nudity, and this ridiculous magazine, and the Real World tryout, all this need, most of it disguised by sneering, but all driven by a hyper-awareness of this window, I guess, a few years when your muscles are taut, coiled up and vibrating. But what to do with the energy? I mean, when we drive, Toph and I, and we drive past people, standing on top of all these hills, part of me wants to stop the car and turn up the radio and have us all dance in formation, and part of me wants to run them all over. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—March 12, 1970
Where—Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Reared—Lake Forest, Illinois
Education—University of Illinois
Currently—lives in San Francisco, California

Dave Eggers is the author of four books, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, You Shall Know Our Velocity!, How We Are Hungry, and What Is the What. He is the editor of McSweeney’s, a quarterly magazine and book-publishing company, and is cofounder of 826 Valencia, a network of nonprofit writing and tutoring centers for young people.

His interest in oral history led to his 2004 cofounding of Voice of Witness, a nonprofit series of books that use oral history to illuminate human rights crises around the world. As a journalist, his work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, and The Believer. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter. (From the publisher.)

Eggers was born in Boston, Massachusetts, grew up in suburban Lake Forest (where he was a high-school classmate of the actor Vince Vaughn), and attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He lives in San Francisco and is married to the writer Vendela Vida. In October 2005, Vendela gave birth to a daughter, October Adelaide Eggers Vida.

Eggers's brother Bill is a researcher who has worked for several conservative think tanks, doing research on privatization. His sister, Beth, claimed that Eggers grossly understated her role in raising their brother Toph and made use of her journals in writing A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius without compensating her. She later recanted her claims in a posting on her brother's own website McSweeney's Internet Tendency, referring to the incident as "a really terrible LaToya Jackson moment". On March 1, 2002, the New York Post reported that Beth, then a lawyer in Modesto, California, had committed suicide. Eggers briefly spoke about his sister's death during a 2002 fan interview for McSweeney's.

Eggers was one of three 2008 TED Prize recipients. His TED Prize wish: for community members to personally engage with local public schools.

Eggers began writing as a Salon.com editor and founded Might magazine, while also writing a comic strip called Smarter Feller (originally Swell, then Smart Feller) for SF Weekly. His first book was a memoir (with fictional elements), A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000). It focuses on the author's struggle to raise his younger brother in San Francisco following the sudden deaths of their parents. The book quickly became a bestseller and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. The memoir was praised for its originality, idiosyncratic self-referencing, and for several innovative stylistic elements. Early printings of the 2001 trade-paperback edition were published with a lengthy, apologetic postscript entitled "Mistakes We Knew We Were Making."

In 2002, Eggers published his first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, a story about a frustrating attempt to give away money to deserving people while haphazardly traveling the globe. An expanded and revised version was released as Sacrament in 2003 and retitled You Shall Know Our Velocity! for its Vintage imprint distribution. He has since published a collection of short stories, How We Are Hungry, and three politically-themed serials for Salon.com. In November 2005, Eggers published Surviving Justice: America's Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated, compiling the book of interviews with exonerees once sentenced to death. The book was compiled with Lola Vollen, "a physician specializing in the aftermath of large-scale human rights abuses" and "a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley's Institute of International Studies and a practicing clinician." Novelist Scott Turow wrote the introduction to Surviving Justice. Eggers's most recent novel, What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (McSweeney's, 2006), was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. Eggers is also the editor of the Best American Nonrequired Reading series, an annual anthology of short stories, essays, journalism, satire, and alternative comics.

Eggers is the founder of McSweeney's, an independent publishing house. McSweeney's produces a quarterly literary journal, McSweeney's, first published in 1998; a monthly journal, The Believer, which debuted in 2003 and is edited by wife Vida; and, beginning in 2005, a quarterly DVD magazine, Wholphin. Other works include The Future Dictionary of America, Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans, and the "Dr. and Mr. Haggis-On-Whey" children's books of literary nonsense, which Eggers writes with his younger brother. Ahead of the 2006 FIFA World Cup, Eggers wrote an essay about the US national team and soccer in the United States for The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup, a book published with aid of the journal Granta, that contained essays about each competing team in the tournament.

Eggers currently teaches writing in San Francisco at 826 Valencia, a nonprofit tutoring center and writing school for children that he cofounded in 2002. Eggers has recruited volunteers to operate similar programs in Los Angeles, New York City, Seattle, Chicago, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, all under the auspices of the nonprofit organization 826 National. In 2006, he appeared at a series of fundraising events, dubbed the Revenge of the Book–Eaters tour, to support these programs. The Chicago show, at the Park West theatre, featured Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard. Other performers on the tour included Sufjan Stevens, Jon Stewart and David Byrne. In September 2007, the Heinz Foundations awarded Eggers a $250,000 Heinz award given to recognize "extraordinary achievements by individuals". The award will be used to fund some of the 826 Valencia writing centers. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews 
Mr. Eggers demonstrates in this book that he can pretty much write about anything. He can turn a Frisbee game with his brother into an existential meditation on life. He can convey the wild, caffeinated joy he feels after seeing a friend wake up from a coma. And he can turn his efforts to scatter his mother's ashes in Lake Michigan into a story that's both a lyrical tribute to her passing and a crude, slapstick account of his ineptitude as a mourner, lugging about a canister of ashes that reminds him, creepily, of the Ark of the Covenant in the Spielberg movie.... A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius may start off sounding like one of those coy, solipsistic exercises that put everything in little ironic quote marks, but it quickly becomes a virtuosic piece of writing, a big, daring, manic-depressive stew of book that noisily announces the debut of a talented — yes, staggeringly talented new writer.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

Literary self-consciousness and technical invention mix unexpectedly in this engaging memoir by Eggers, editor of the literary magazine McSweeney's and the creator of a satiric 'zine called Might, who subverts the conventions of the memoir by questioning his memory, motivations and interpretations so thoroughly that the form itself becomes comic. Despite the layers of ironic hesitation, the reader soon discerns that the emotions informing the book are raw and, more importantly, authentic. After presenting a self-effacing set of "Rules and Suggestions for the Enjoyment of this Book" ("Actually, you might want to skip much of the middle, namely pages 209-301") and an extended, hilarious set of acknowledgments (which include an itemized account of his gross and net book advance), Eggers describes his parents' horrific deaths from cancer within a few weeks of each other during his senior year of college, and his decision to move with his eight year-old brother, Toph, from the suburbs of Chicago to Berkeley, near where his sister, Beth, lives. In California, he manages to care for Toph, work at various jobs, found Might, and even take a star turn on MTV's The Real World. While his is an amazing story, Eggers, now 29, mainly focuses on the ethics of the memoir and of his behavior—his desire to be loved because he is an orphan and admired for caring for his brother versus his fear that he is attempting to profit from his terrible experiences and that he is only sharing his pain in an attempt to dilute it. Though the book is marred by its ending—an unsuccessful parody of teenage rage against the cruel world—it will still delight admirers of structural experimentation and Gen-Xers alike.
Publishers Weekly

It's a good guess that Jedediah Purdy—the author of For Common Things and righteous agitator against irony—would hate Eggers and his late satirical magazine, Might, right along with this masterly memoir. That is a shame because, despite Eggers's inability to take anything seriously on its surface, this meandering story rests on a foundation of sincerity that is part of Purdy's rallying cry. Amid countless digressions, Eggers relates two tales: his mostly successful, if unconventional attempt at raising his much younger brother following their parents' deaths and his years founding and then witnessing the slow demise of Might. Throughout, Eggers eschews any contrivance. The expected tales of emotional longing, political alienation, and creative struggle by a smart twentysomething are replaced by a stream of hilarious, how-it-happened anecdotes; often inane, how-we-really-talk dialog; and quick jabs at some of our society's bizarre conventions. In the end one is left with a surprisingly moving tale of family bonding and resilience as well as the nagging suspicion that maybe he made the whole thing up. In any case, as compared with the spate of recent reminiscences by earnest youngsters, Eggers delivers a worthwhile story told in perfect pitch to the material. Highly recommended for public and undergraduate libraries.
Library Journal

This fierce, funny memoir lives up to its tongue-in-cheek title. When Eggers was a senior in college, his parents both died of cancer, only five weeks apart, and he found that he had inherited his eight-year-old brother. He and young Toph (short for Christopher) leave Chicago for Berkley, California, to live near older siblings, but Eggers is the one who serves as chief surrogate parent. The two set up a slovenly bachelor household together, and Eggers attempts to start a career while taking care of his brother, undertaking both endeavors in a rather haphazard but energetic and deeply felt manner. The brothers play Frisbee endlessly and practice sock sliding in their various abodes, eating dishes like "The Mexican-Italian War" (ground beef sautéed in spaghetti sauce, served with tortillas), arriving late to everything but somehow, just barely, keeping it together. The first half of the book, relating the death of Eggers' mother and the move west, is particularly powerful. Wild black humor pops up at the oddest points, however, and Eggers is nothing if not self-conscious, as he keeps pointing out to the reader. Eggers and some friends started a magazine named Might, and much of the second half of the book has to do with keeping this venture afloat. The paperback edition includes a lengthy new appendix, "Mistakes We Knew We Were Making," correcting and annotating parts of the text, and the preface and acknowledgements sections—and even the information on the verso page—are quirky and funny. Eggers is a talented writer, and the story of his patched-together family and his forays into magazine publishing are well worth reading, but strap yourself in for a wild ride. Adult language.

"A memoir," says the book's cover, "based on a true story." Readers are advised in the preface that "many parts have been fictionalized," but it is not really clear how much is "real" here and how much is spoof.... Eggers voices the classic youthful assumption that the world belongs (or should belong) to him. From anyone else this might be incredibly annoying, but so much is tongue-in-cheek in this work.... This is a very entertaining, well-written book. —Grace Fill

It isn't but its better than most novel-like objects created by our younger writers, and like them, this one is directly autobiographical, ironic, and self-referential, concluding with a tiny gesture of hope the author no doubt considers brave given the vicissitudes hes retailed in prose. It is a potpourri of young gestures: David Wallaces intricate cataloguing of smart trivia; Rick Moodys detached, incisive portraiture of white suburban America; Bret Elliss seen-it-all spiritual fatigue; and a dollop of Michael Chabons candy-coated, hope-flavored insight. After a relentless preface and introduction (in which readers are instructed they could profitably read only the first 109 pages, a nice length, a nice novella sort of length), Eggers duly produces his imaginations ripe fruit: the death of both parents, by cancer, a month apart, when he was in his 20s. With younger brother Toph in tow, Eggers takes flight to San Francisco, moves about, discovers mild poverty, and tries out for MTVs popular The Real World. His unsuccessful interview, reprinted here, discloses a hard shell of pre-emptive irony, intended, no doubt, to deflect authentic emotions and qualify him for the show. (Eggers doesnt believe in dignity or privacy, for starters.) He doesnt make it, but his unsated desire to demonstrate his grief/rage/detachment leads him, with friends, to found Might magazine, which has a modestly successful run. Mights staging of the death of Adam Rich (Nicholas from Eight Is Enough) is briefly amusing, but only Toph shares Eggers pleasure in mocking celebrities while appearing to valorize them, and as this self-approving account concludes, a frisbee game with the wise kid results in a pure moment of grace, curiously intertwined with a crucifixion-martyr motif, in which Eggers is the suffering truth-teller. It is evidently hard to have been Eggers, though few readers will be satisfied with this nugget of hard-won wisdom in return for their investment of time and good will.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. The material preceding the main text in this book—called "front matter" in the publishing business—has been entirely taken over by the author, including the usually very official copyright page. Why might the publisher have allowed Eggers to take this unconventional route? Why does Eggers work so extensively at disrupting the formality of publication and his status as an author?

2. On the copyright page we find the statement, "This is a work of fiction"; and at the beginning of the preface Eggers writes, "This is not, actually, a work of pure nonfiction." What point is Eggers making by casting all these doubts on the veracity of the book's contents? In his discussion about the current popularity of memoirs [pp. xxi-xxiii], Eggers admits that the book is a memoir but encourages his readers to think of it as fiction. What is the difference, in a work of literature, between fact and fiction, and does it matter?

3. In the remarkable acknowledgments section, which is a brilliant critique and discussion of the book as a whole, Eggers points out that "the success of a memoir...has a lot to do with how appealing its narrator is" [p. xxvii]. What is appealing about Eggers as a narrator?

4. Eggers notes that the first major theme of the book is "The Unspoken Magic of Parental Disappearance" [p. xxviii]. It is a psychological truism that most children occasionally fantasize about being orphans, because parents often stand in the way of their children's desires. Along these lines, Eggers admits that the loss of his parents is "accompanied by an undeniable but then of courseguilt-inducing sense of mobility, of infinite possibility" [p. xxix]. Does he ever find a way to resolve his conflicting emotions of grief and guilt?

5. If it is true, as Eggers points out, that he is not the first person whose parents died or who was left with the care of a sibling, what makes his story unique?

6. Eggers worries that because he is neither a woman nor a neat, well-organized person [pp. 81, 99], people assume that he can't take care of Toph. Which aspects of Eggers' parenting are most admirable? Which are most comic? What are the benefits and drawbacks of each aspect?

7. How do Eggers' memories of his father compare to those about his mother? To what degree are his feelings about his parents resolved, or at least assuaged, through the act of writing this book?

8. Much of the central part of the book relates to the business of launching and producing Might magazine. What does this section reveal about the concerns, desires, and frustrations of thoughtful, energetic twenty-somethings in contemporary America?

9. Eggers expresses ambivalence about having written this book because he feels guilty about exploiting his family's misfortune and exposing a private matter to the public. Among the epigraphs that Eggers considered, and then didn't use, for the book are "Why not just write what happened?" (R. Lowell) and "Ooh, look at me, I'm Dave, I'm writing a book! With all my thoughts in it! La la la!" (Christopher Eggers) [p. xvii]. How do these two epigraphs crystallize the memoir writer's dilemma?

10. Why does Eggers judge himself so harshly for returning to the family's old house in Lake Forest and for trying to retrieve his mother's ashes? Does the trip provide him and his story with a sense of closure, or just the opposite? Is there a central revelation to Eggers' narrative, a strong sense of change or a significant development? Or would you say, on the contrary, that the book has the haphazardness and lack of structure that we find in real life?

11. Eggers refers, half-jokingly, half-seriously, to himself and Toph as "God's tragic envoys" [p. 73]. Is it true, as Eggers suggests, that tragic occurrences give those to whom they happen the feeling of having been singled out for a special destiny? Is it common among those who have suffered intensely to expect some sort of recompense?

12. Recurring throughout the interview for MTV's The Real World [chapter VI] is the image of what Eggers calls "the lattice." What does he mean by this, and does it amount to a kind of spiritual belief on his part?

13. Mary Park, writing for Amazon. com, notes that "Eggers comes from the most media-saturated generation in history—so much so that he can't feel an emotion without the sense that it's already been felt for him.... Oddly enough, the effect is one of complete sincerity." How does Eggers manage to turn his generation's burdens of self-consciousness into strengths? What are the qualities that make his writing so vivid and memorable?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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