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Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

by Dave Eggers

(5/5 stars)

When I recently read Kerouac's "On the Road" I lamented that I read it too late in life for it to really change my life. "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" on the other hand I read at the exact right time. If I'd read it five years earlier or five years later I would have been out of touch with the material.

The book opens (after the preface, which you can read or not--I skipped it) with Dave Eggers's mother dying of cancer. At the same time his father also has some kind of cancer, though this was a little less clear. After both parents succumb to their illness, the Eggers clan moves from their dull little Chicago suburb--the kind of place immortalized in John Hughes movies where the most exciting event was Mr. T moving in--to the Left Coast. Older brother Bill moves to LA where Dave, his sister Beth, and younger brother Christopher (called Toph) go to San Francisco. Because Bill is busy with work and Beth has school, Dave ends up caring for Toph.

In a Hollywood version it would probably end up like "Mr. Mom" or "Mrs. Doubtfire" at this point with lots of slapstick as a slacker twentysomething has to care for a 10-year-old boy. In reality (or what's more or less reality) they live like college roommates in semi-squalor, constantly running late to various appointments. In general Toph is a good kid who doesn't create much trouble for Dave--doesn't start running with a gang or shooting drugs or torturing small animals. Not that it's all a breeze; most of the trouble is caused by trying to convince various private schools and such that Dave is Toph's guardian.

Dave does temp jobs in graphic design while also working for "Might Magazine," an upstart youth culture magazine that like all of Gen X in the early-mid-'90s launches a futile rebellion for no real reason. (Come on, what the heck were we rebelling against with the grunge and Nirvana? I have no idea, really.) They pull stunts like try to audition for the "Real World" (when reality TV was a new concept) and fake the death of the kid from "Eight is Enough." From all appearances the magazine is never really that successful. I have a slight bit of knowledge in this area and know how tough it is, especially in this age where everyone can have a blog or website.

What I think really resonates at this point is the experience of not just growing up, but your family growing up and growing apart. As a kid, most of us don't put too much thought into our parents always being there, but as we get older we realize our parents are all too human and prone to the same weaknesses as anyone else. At the same time, the siblings you used to spend so much time with eventually move away and develop lives of their own that you no longer are much of a part of and in time can become almost like strangers. But the good thing about "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" is that Eggers never gets too weepy or maudlin to make the experience dreary or dull. Instead, his almost surreal descriptions tinge even the darkest moments like a friend in a coma and another who attempts suicide with dark humor. Dave's neurotic inner-life reminds me of a less-sexual "Portnoy's Complaint" by Philip Roth, only it's more or less real, which is more amazing.

It might be interesting to read this book in five years and see how much it still resonates with me, or if by then this book and I grow apart as well. Wait and see.

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