National Bestseller The literary sensation of the year, a book that redefines both family and narrative for the twenty-first century. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is the moving memoir of a college senior who, in the space of five weeks, loses both of his parents to cancer and inherits his eight-year-old brother. Here is an exhilarating debut that manages to be simultaneously hilarious and wildly inventive as well as a deeply heartfelt story of the love that holds a family together. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is an instant classic that will be read in paperback for decades to come. The Vintage edition includes a new appendix by the author."
had lunch recently with an editor from a London publishing house who had turned down the chance to publish Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. She had thought the book self-indulgent and had rejected it before it stormed to the top of the US bestseller lists, and we talked just as the process was being repeated in the UK. The consolatory chardonnay flowed.
Dave Eggers metafiction, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. It tells the story of his parents' deaths of cancer within five weeks of each other and Eggers's efforts, at the age of twenty-two, to balance the responsibilities of single parenthood with his comfortably faux-bohemian lifestyle on the edges of nineties media culture.
Eggers describes the sense of doom that overtakes anybody who loses both parents: the dark conviction that parental death is only the beginning, that the unthinkable disaster will surely be followed swiftly by unimaginable catastrophe, the whole family plunging into sickness and horror. Eggers deals with his loss by pouring himself into his kid brother, Toph, whose welfare, happiness and education form the central project of the author's twenties. Some of Eggers' best writing is about his relationship with Toph- in his rendering of his urges toward protection and liberation, domestic isolation and elaborate performance of the roles of tragic orphan heroes. It's also here that the book's narrative starts to drift on currents of self-reference, the brothers' dialogue veering into commentary on the ethics and structure of the book and Toph's place in his brother's literary reworking of their predicament.
An intricate web of introductory material deliberately contradicts itself, claiming varying degrees of "fictionalization." If the book is a memoir, it's a memoir that substantially rewrites the 'I' in the text. If it is a novel, it's a novel that presents a hazy realism. Apart from the heavy-handed moments when Eggers's friends and family lean over the frame to discuss the picture, much of the book reads like it was written in response to a creative writing teacher's demand for less metafiction and more authenticity.
"A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" is a frictionless slide from brilliance and tragedy to trivia, from a book that initially looks like it might startle with its emotional and rhetorical verve, to a memoir much like any other. Eggers's book, unfortunately, is half novel and half memoir. At the end of the story, he and Toph play frisbee on the beach, wowing onlookers with their audacious control and aerobatic skills. It's a nice metaphor for the author's efforts to keep a version of his decimated family airborn, but the book, regrettably, is already lodged in the sand.
* "We have advantages. We have a cushion to fall back on. This is abundance. A luxury of place and time. Something rare and wonderful. It's almost historically unprecedented. We must do extraordinary things. We have to. It would be absurd not to." - Dave Eggers A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius