Review of ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’

by / 0 Comments / 284 View / September 6, 2014

Published in 2000, Dave Eggers’s Pulitzer Prize finalist and, arguably, pinnacle work truly is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. I am of course referring to his book aptly titled A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. In the book, Eggers chronicles his own youth alongside that of his little brother as they struggle to make ends meet after both of their parents’ deaths. Despite the heartbreaking premise, Eggers writes with a unique style of casual prose that can at times suspend tension in unprecedented ways, all while carrying hilarious sarcastic undertones.

A memoir of sorts, the book falls into the elusive realm of creative nonfiction, or as Eggers puts it:

“This is a work of fiction, only in that in many cases, the author could not remember the exact words said by certain people, and exact descriptions of certain things, so had to fill in gaps as best he could. Otherwise, all characters and incidents and dialogue are real.”

Yet his story and style, however real, do not make the book “a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.” His self-awareness does.

Eggers’s self-awareness both elucidates as well as throttles the book. It is confined to his mind as well as exploded in the face of a generation. It is both brilliant and heartbreakingly tragic. Eggers centers the narrative around the classic, tragic-revival archetype. He and his brother have been thrown to the pits only to crawl their way up, mirthlessly, to display all their glory and freedom and genius for the entire world to revel in. And Eggers, the character, not the author, is aware of fitting–rather, embodying–this archetype as the story progresses. The character Eggers stubbornly pursues the fulfillment of his manifest destiny as a survivor of the hells of life, a martyr to rebirth.

This kind of self-awareness has an increasingly topical premise and frighteningly so. Where an overabundance of information and the pervasive use of ideas like “meta” (i.e. self-awareness) are exacerbated by the Internet, society is evolving on a larger scale to fit its own archetype. A new generation, to an extent, feverishly awaits becoming the next revolutionary age–a rehash of the 1960’s revolution–to fit the hero’s model. The protests of this generation and the next will be plagued by the awareness of the 20th century Civil Rights movement archetype. They will not feel as natural–more forced, however progressive. This is a frightening thought. And Eggers does just this in the book: he forces the self-awareness.

As much as I love the self-awareness, it becomes inundating, and feels redundant. Yet he uses the self-awareness as an excuse to not fully relieve the reader from drowning in it. But that’s okay because, well, self-awareness! So is the awareness of not caring about the awareness really his “awareness”? What about when incongruous anecdotes feel a bit too smashed together? Well, again, that’s okay because of self-awareness! He can drag the reader in circles with self-awareness like this, and I cannot tell if it vindicates him where it shouldn’t or just makes the book that much more artful.

I highly recommend the book. Not only will you truly enjoy Eggers’s humor and prose, but you will also begin to question your own self-awareness in ways you did not expect. A must read for the next generation to, as Eggers might suggest, be who we are destined to be.


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