Monday, April 13, 2009

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers

When a friend of mine told me about this book, she said that it was a memoir about a young man whose parents had died of cancer within weeks of each other. It was a book about a twenty-something man from Chicago who was raising his eight-year-old brother.

"Okay," I thought when I borrowed this book from the library, "then why am I finding this book in the fiction section?"

I soon found out. In the preface, Dave Eggers discloses that "this is not, actually, a work of pure nonfiction. Many parts have been fictionalized in varying degrees, for various purposes." (p. ix) All of the dialogue has been reconstructed, and in certain parts of the book, the characters often break out of character and talk about their place in the book itself. In other words, they acknowledge that they are a part of the book, and critique Eggers for the dialogue he is writing for them.

Additionally, some names have been changed (although Eggers used his siblings' real names), and there has been some switching in the chronology of certain events. Eggers acknowledges all of the fictionalized text, and maintains that it was based on a true story. For these reasons, this is why it's treated as a work of fiction, and not strictly as a memoir. (The preface made me immediately think of A Million Little Pieces, and how James Frey didn't admit he took artistic liberties until well after the Oprah controversy).

Anyway, Eggers takes many artistic liberties during the course of the book, starting with the acknowledgements, which continue for twenty pages. In order for you to truly understand what I'm talking about, you'll have to read the book. I can't really accurately describe it online, but let's just say that he includes such people as NASA and Simon and Schuster. He also does his own analysis of the book using common themes in literature, such as loss of parents, a man finding himself, and siblings raising each other (here he makes a few references to the old show Party of Five. However, this book is nothing like Party of Five).

The novel opens in Chicago, where Eggers and his older sister, Beth, are caring for their mother, who is dying of stomach cancer. Their father, an alcoholic lawyer, died from lung cancer weeks before. The Eggers clan, once their parents' estates are settled, pack up and move out to the west coast, where the oldest sibling, Bill, works for a think tank in Los Angeles, and Beth starts law school. Eggers settles in Berkeley with his eight-year-old brother, Toph, and starts working a series of temp jobs before he starts a magazine with several of his old grade school friends.

Might magazine, which is geared towards twenty-somethings, is based out of San Francisco. The city, and the magazine, figure prominently in the middle of the book. This portion of the book deals with mid to late 1990s twenty-something angst. Eggers writes about how he and his friends at Might are going to change the world, that they don't want to ever feel that they have a job, that they don't ever feel that they have to work, that they don't ever feel that they have to listen to what society tells them what to be. Those who were neither in their late teens or early twenties during the latter half of the 1990s, as I was, won't understand this portion of the book. I totally got it, since Eggers was writing about people of my generation.

I especially liked the chapter of the book where Eggers auditions for The Real World: San Francisco. He doesn't get cast, but makes friends with Judd, who became a part of the cast, and tries to get Might Magazine as much exposure on the show as possible.

I had to smile while I read this part. The Real World: San Francisco was a prominent part of my freshman year of college. We had Real World parties in our dorm rooms. I remember Pedro, and how much we all loved him, and how crushed we were when he succumbed to AIDS. I especially remember how Puck was kicked out of the house.

Speaking of Puck, he makes an appearance in the chapter, and makes quite an impression on Mr. Eggers and the Might staff.

Oh yeah, and I'd call home, and talk about The Real World with my mother. She and my then-sixteen-year-old sister would watch it together. Interesting mother-daughter bonding, considering Mama Cat hated MTV. But I digress...

Much of the novel, of course, is devoted to a twenty-four-year-old man raising his eight-year-old brother. Eggers is not your "father knows best" type of parent, but is more of a buddy than anything else. He tries to keep things light between him and Toph, mainly because he doesn't want the boy to be completely traumatized by his parents' deaths. Speaking of their parents' deaths, Eggers doesn't fully explore his feelings about them until the second-to-last chapter in the novel. When he does, his emotions are strong, raw, and tangible. I found it very touching.

Scattered throughout the novel are tales of typical male twenty-something exploits, such as dating, having fun, going to bars and hanging out with friends. As I read about these exploits I thought about how shallow these were. And they are. But there are enough tales in the book that make up for this shallowness, such as Eggers' friend John's suicide attempts, and the fallout from those, as well as his friend Shalini's accident and subsequent coma.

I really enjoyed this book, and would like to read it again sometime. However, I think it's one of those books that older people, such as those of my parents' generation, won't understand. That, and you can tell that Eggers has a bit of an ego. If you get past this, though, and understand the mindset that was the mid-1990s, heck, today's early-to-mid twenty-something, this is a really fine, well-written book.

This is the latest entry in my 2009 100+ Reading Challenge, my 2009 A to Z Challenge, as well as my 2009 Support Your Local Library Challenge. Click on the buttons in the sidebars for the archived lists!


Cammie said...

A book club that I was in a few years back picked this book. I tried so hard to get into it and for some reason I just could not finish it....which is rare for me. It got very good reviews from the group though so I was the odd one out on that one.

Janna Bee said...

I was excited when I saw that you reviewed this book because I've read this book- I think you are right on the money- especially about the ego thing (that was something I could never put into words about the book that bothered me).

Grand Pooba said...

Wow, that was quite the review! So is this A to Z thing where you read a book that starts with the letter A and then B and so on?

Hmmm, sounds kinda fun!

drollgirl said...

i love that book, but it is brutal. but if you have ever dealt with cancer, you can sure relate to it (my mom had breast cancer when i was a kid).

Vickie said...

I just might have to add this book to my tbr list. That list is so long and my book pile is stack high. Sometimes I am overwhelmed with it all:)

Jenners said...

Great job on this! I read this ages ago and I know it would be a monster to review! All I remember are the footnotes and the tangents ... very amusing but it took me a long time to wade through everything. Fantastic job ...