Saturday, January 30, 2010

Book Review: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

I am a big fan of well-written, lyrical memoirs: creative non-fiction, not straight autobiographies. Dave Eggers does not disappoint in his memoir of becoming his brother's parent at age 21. But this book is so much more than Eggers' struggle to be a parent vs. a big brother. It's a coming-of-age story of a person that is overloaded with creative genius, surrounded by emotionally needy friends, and being emotionally needy himself, and who is trying to figure out what he is supposed to do with all of that.

The story opens in the elite suburb of Chicago as Eggers' mother is dying from the last stages of cancer. Just a month of so before, his dad also died of cancer, unexpectedly. At this time Dave is 21 and his older brother and sister are also in their early twenties. And then there is Christopher (Toph), who is just eight-years-old. For various reasons, Dave becomes the primary caretaker of Toph, with sister Beth helping out when she can. They move to California, where Dave and Toph live in semi-squalor by night, while Toph attends a private school by day. Dave is still really a kid himself, forced to become essentially a single mom without any real knowledge of how to go about it. But he has great parenting instincts for the most part and is completely committed to raising Toph.

The title of this memoir, which I sense is meant to be self-deprecating and ironic, is perfect. It is a heartbreaking story. Losing both parents in a matter of months. Going from being a mostly functional family of six to a brother/brother-parent/son duo. Going from being a carefree college student to a dad. And then there is the whole struggle of just being in one's early 20s, wondering where to go and what to do. And the staggering genius part: Eggers really is. His writing is amazing. The dialog is perfect. It's all just so...real. It's sad story, but I laughed out loud a lot and found myself nodding in understanding. I totally get him at a generational level. He is clever and funny and amazingly perceptive.

The downside: There were parts I skimmed, I must admit. Sometimes he went off on tangents that lost my interest. And the last few pages were bizarre; the book ended with a slow fizzling out. Also, Eggers' swears a whole lot, especially toward the end of the book. I'm just not really around that in my life, so I found it silly and annoying, but it didn't stop me from loving the book and recognizing it is an honest, reflective, and ultimately hopeful book.


Ann Elle Altman said...

What a wonderful title. You can tell that his genius makes him talk a lot about things even if it may lose the reader.


Anonymous said...

Oh :-) I have this on Mt. TBR, and I'm so looking forward to reading it, now even more so! Great review!

Greg Zimmerman said...

Great review of a fantastic book! You're right - deprecating and ironic, but one of the best titles in all of literature, in my opinion! :)