A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – David Eggers

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This is a real book.

The main reason I was so excited to read Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was that extracts from the book were used in the readers for two of my creative writing course. Specifically, the highly idiosyncratic preface and Egger’s description of his mother’s terminal illness were used. I have written one or two essays on those portions without reading the entire novel, hence my excitement.

The main story concerns Eggers taking guardianship of his brother Toph after the death of his parents, later working on ambitious magazine called The Might. It’s very nineties, but only in a way in which those who were in their twenties in the nineties could appreciate. Eggers talks a lot about The Real World, not so much about Pokemon. Although Toph does play a Sega Genesis, and later a Playstation.

I’m not sure if ‘novel’ is the correct way to describe this memoir, even a fanciful one like Eggers’, but the metafictional devices he uses are certainly memorable. Characters frequently call out Eggers on the self-serving nature of his narrative, such as the casting director of The Real World who gets him to admit that she never asked the questions he described and that they are the perfect launchpad for another of his wall-of-text monologues. A composite character called John, an addict, refuses to die so that Eggers can become a better person. The most bombastic scene of the novel is a bipolar fantasy in which the roof of Eggers’ hometown church is lifted by the hand of God while an angelic choir sings and his mother laughs.

Through these self-reflexive moments, Eggers seems to ask the reader whether his less admirable qualities can be ameliorated by his constant acknowledgement of them. To which I answer that the constant acknowledgement doesn’t help the situation.

I enjoyed this book because it took post-modernism as far as it could without becoming unbearable, although I totally understand how others could by put off by all that. And even though Eggers isn’t always the most sympathetic entity, his adventures are still engaging. Without robots, aliens or time travel A Heartbreaking Work managed to interest me all the way through – which is just a long way of saying this is a worthwhile book.

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