Saturday, January 30, 2010


A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
I always find it slightly irritating to read a book written by someone who's a whole lot smarter than me. That is to say, while many writers are a whole lot smarter but write in a way that their brilliance isn't shoved in my face, this week I read a book where the writer's brilliance and lit crit skills are pointed out with big arrows and neon lights. I was warned by the title, so reminiscent of a certain high school mentality: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I have avoided the book time and again because this title annoyed me so. But at last I am sufficiently relaxed to be up for a bit of a joke. And now that I have read more than the title - each and every word, in fact, and some of them twice over - I am pleased to report that while it may not be a AHWOSG, it's certainly AJGAOG.*

AHWOSG is Eggers's account of the death of his parents, 32 days apart, and the years which follow. He was 21 when they died. His younger brother, Toph (pronounced 'Tofe' ie Christopher) was only 7 and, although Eggers has two older siblings, Eggers became his brother's guardian. He writes about the experience, a true story, but structures it as a fictional account. After all, as he points out in the preface, it's not as if he can remember every word of every significant conversation.

The book is full of similar tricks. The most pervasive is Eggers's regular reminder to the reader that he is self-aware. Near the beginning of the book is a lengthy preface which outlines many aspects of the book, including "C) The painfully, endlessly self-conscious book aspect" and "C.2) The knowingness about the book's self-consciousness aspect." In the body of the text, from time to time a character breaks out and becomes the voice of the author arguing with himself; elsewhere, Eggers leaps into self-critical monologues. This self-awareness could be grating, yet it comes across as a relatively honest account. This is, after all, how our minds and hearts work: assessing, judging, analyzing even as we think and act and play and breathe.

It works in part because Eggers so precisely evokes the experience of having a parent die, which, at least for me, was coloured by endless mindgames and painful self-awareness. He recalls not so much the grief, but instead the extreme mundanity of hanging around while someone is very ill. Early on in the book, he is at the hospital with his older sister Beth, and Toph. They have been given a room for the dying; it contains both a hospital bed and a pull-out couch. As his mother fights for breath, her children try to sleep. Eggers writes about the sheer tedium of waiting in the night for the next breath, or the next, so shockingly far apart, each one a powerful act of will, and wondering, even hoping, that this breath or that might be the last and the waiting might be over. Yet even as he thinks about her death and makes fruitless plans and fantasizes about the end, he finds himself annoyed by the metal bar across the centre of the couch which digs into his back and prevents him from getting anywhere close to sleep.

At home, as his mother coughs up bile, Eggers shifts around on the couch, lying along its back, trying to find a comfortable position so he can both hold the kidney shaped dish into which she spat, and see the television. He writes about small things done badly at a time when everything feels important: slopping bile all over his trousers and forgetting to change them before taking his mother to the hospital - and en route, carrying her and whacking her head against the doorframe. So stupid, so mundane. This is exactly how it was for us, too, and I am grateful to him for giving a voice to it.

As the book develops, the reader is struck by his towering rage. Eggers writes honestly about his burning sense of entitlement - my life has been shit, I am OWED - and the outflow of rage/entitlement. It leads to frenetic activity: running a business, founding a magazine, going out whenever possible to be with people his own age - and always there, always needing rides and cooking and horseplay and care, is his passionately loved brother, Toph.

Eggers suggests in the preface that the first three or four chapters are the best, and I'd have to agree with his odd comment. They are the most immediate, the most gripping. But in its entirety, the book well describes ongoing grief. It may not always be dramatic, but it colours every experience for years, whether it's responding to a friend in crisis or filling out school forms.

Like Eggers, I experienced the death of a parent in my early twenties. Unlike him, however, my grief and rage turned inwards. I felt like I fractured, and thus began a great passivity, years of undemanding work and odd part time studies with no sense of purpose, direction or ambition. Almost a decade later, I find myself married with three children, and feel oddly jealous of the way he turned his grief and rage outwards, developing a magazine, devouring the world, and writing this book. This is the sort of book I would have liked to have written, had my rage turned incandescent, had I been willing and able to express how I felt. Instead, for the most part, I remained polite. Fuckit. I admire his courage and openness in this book, and love his evident playfulness. The hilarious and the painful and the awful are jumbled together, just as they are in all of our lives. This is a terrific book, a real ride that takes you and thrills you and makes you glad to be alive and with voice. May it be a catalyst.

> Dave Eggers A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (London: Picador, 2000, 2001).

*A Jolly Good Account of Grief.

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