Book Review: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Yes, 4 stars.
Let’s just get this out of the way: I liked this book. I hope to pick it up again in a few years and enjoy it for other reasons. So, if you don’t like this book, then you should either a) choose another review to read that supports/validates your opinion, b) read this review to see why I liked it so much (& maybe politely disagree with me), or c) read this review and wholeheartedly abandoned your previous conclusion. Go on… I’ll give you some time to decide.

I think something impressive is happening with Dave Eggers’ writing. First off, this is the first novel I have read of his and I did so only after reading a raving review of his latest novel in the NYT Sunday, July 29th Book Review, which I stole from a Starbucks (you know, that wire rack that people put newspapers after they are done with them? That place. It’s next to the fireplace). Eggers confronts the notion of fiction and non-fiction, whether he wants to or not. He refers to his work as “fiction” in the books catalog page, or “semi-fictional” or “semi-autobiographical,” and even once “nonfiction” during the Mistakes We Knew We Were Making section. All these labels really do not matter, simply because all the notes, appendices, etc. that many readers/critics refer to as “postmodern” is Eggers confronting the line between non-fiction and fiction, simile and reality, metaphor and fact. (This is, yes, postmodern, in its confrontation with what we know of as the Modern, plot-driven novel that we often come to expect from our education system of reading The Old Man and the Sea, All Quiet on the Western Front, or 1984 in high school, but that’s another discussion).

You see, there is no possible way for fiction to be eradicated. Any true memoir does not exist, but only in the mind of the author who purports it as such, and the readers who think this phenomenon possible. There is no such thing as non-fiction. Eggers knows this. (Sure, that statement sounded powerful, but how in the hell could I know that he knows that?). No story you tell me, or anyone for that matter, could possibly be a true account of what occurred. It is only a true account of what occurred from your perspective, and your perspective is colored by gender, race, class, sexual orientation, languages known, hair color, age, foot size, diseases had, family lineage, whether both grandparents are still alive, get the point? So, this is what ultimately fascinates me about this text: it’s desire to cling to non-fiction (real phone #’s, addresses, names, etc.), while acknowledging the inability of the author to remember everything and not take “artistic license” for most of the text (example: Bloodstream footnote on page 35 of the Mistakes section reads “This did not happen as stated… I changed and inserted this because it seemed like a good idea at the time”). Of course.

Eggers admitting the use of fiction in order to make a more cohesive story should be an “ah-ha!” moment for the reader simply because it is hilarious! The levity with which he treats a memoir should be duly noted and observed with the same levity. We should NOT take this book seriously as clinging to fiction or non-fiction, nor should we fall into the trap of wanting some break-neck narrative that grips our emotions, blaah, blaah, blaah. This book is much smarter (ugh, quirkier?) than a simple, straight-forward narrative. Again: something very interesting is happening with this text. It could easily have been a straight-forward narrative. Or it could easily have been David Foster Wallace with endless footnotes, small print, and meandering, if existent, plot lines. No. Eggers needs the narrative as a vehicle for his literary criticism; his challenge to genre classification.

Well, this leaves me with the Concluding Paragraph in this 5-paragraph schematic, doesn’t it? Well, you can skip ahead to this point if you would like, but you missed some cool italics and links. Honestly: don’t read this book. (Sorry, Dave!) Buy it, but don’t read it. (There, better?). Especially if prone to complaining about “self-awareness” or “pomo” in writing; and especially if you hate short, choppy sentences. Dickens can make a damn fine semicolon do the work of ten of Eggers’ periods.

P.s. Wow. You made it this far. Congrats. Now welcome to my rant for the reviewers of this book on GR. For those of you who feel this book is to “selfish” or “narcissistic”–all of you writing 17,000 character reviews spouting your opinion, bashing another person’s supposedly self-centered writing, criticizing another person’s “narcissism” on your blog devoted to your life–I have an exercise for you. Go to a mirror–any mirror. Look at the person in the mirror. Now pinch that piece of flesh on your neck, just below your chin. Tell me if it hurts? Yes? Good. That means that you are the only person who can feel your pain, your pleasure, your disgust, your happiness, etc. You are the only person who can tell me what it feels like to have your own neck pinched, or lose both your parents, or raise your younger brother alone. Getting up in the morning is the single most selfish act imaginable. Writing about it doesn’t change that. So quit complaining about another person’s successful ability to tell a story. Get over the fact that someone wrote about themselves. Everyone does. Every single character ever created possesses some trait of a real, live individual the author met, or imagined he or she met. So, trying to be honest about it and calling your book a memoir is just owning up to that phenomenon. And Eggers wrestles with that phenomenon very well. So, you can disagree with me. You can write a scathing review about Eggers’ book. But please, please don’t waste our time by criticizing Eggers’ supposed narcissism. Criticize the style, the language, the syntax, the plot; but shut up about your projected passive fear of your own beautiful narcissism.

My read shelf:
Shawn's book recommendations, liked quotes, book clubs, book trivia, book lists (read shelf)

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers

  1. I love this book. I would blog about how much I love it, but I read it in 2003ish.I did blog about his new book though. I’m glad you enjoyed AHWOSG. Dave Eggers is pretty great, generally. Read What is the What. It’s brilliant.

    • Thanks Kate! I am definitely going to check out your review of Eggers’ new book. I have heard great things about What is the What, and it always catches my eye when I pass it at a bookstore. I will have to read that soon. Thanks for the comments!

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