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

While I was in Hawaii, I read Dave Eggers memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (heretofore to be called AHWOSG).  It’s the last of my vacation books to review, mostly because I’ve had some trouble trying to decide if I liked it and if I did, how much.
AHWOSG tells the story of how because of his parents’ coincidental deaths within five weeks of one another, Eggers is forced to go from slacker college student to full-time guardian of his eight-year-old brother.   The story follows the arc of the next decade as Eggers tries to navigate being an “adult” and closes when his brother heads off to college.  There is a lot to recommend this book – Eggers is funny, insightful, at times bitingly sarcastic, and always in-your-face.  His introspection in light of his parents’ demise is emotional, heartrending and very human.  His observations of modern society (well, modern society in the ‘90s…) is dead-on and punishingly frank.

From a structural standpoint, Eggers breaks down the Fourth Wall throughout the book – both with his own narration and even others’ look-how-smart-hip-and-funny-we-are commentary.  This gets to be pretty annoying in a 500 page book.  That’s really a small knock on the book, but I guess where things go wrong for me is that Eggers fails the “dinner test”.  Often when discussing a writer or actor or some public figure, The Beloved and I will say “Would we have them over for dinner?”  And the answer for Eggers is no.  
While he is funny and can turn a great phrase, he’s definitely too manic to hang out with.  Eggers’ highs were super-high.  His lows were crushingly low.  Way too much avoidable drama.  In several places, he diverts into a “stream of consciousness” babble that I suppose is there to represent his confused, angry, and conflicted mind.  Perhaps, but I found those passages more annoying than anything.
Moreover, like so many in Generation-X/Y, Eggers can’t seem to figure out why he is being forced by society to do something as menial as, you know, earn a salary and pay rent.  Why can’t he spend all his time playing Frisbee with his brother and trying to get laid?  I mean, c’mon – he’s SPECIAL!  This is tiresome.  There were too many times when I wanted to tell him, “Suck it up.  Get a job and stop whining!”
In the end AHWOSG challenges its reader to sift through the real emotion and the self-referential coyness to find the meaning in the “real” story.  I think this book is worth the time.  Just don’t make me spend a dinner with him.
Three stars out of five.

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

  1. I love the "dinner test." That is a great way to quickly describe your view of a book or a character in a book! This one sounds way to dramatic for me. Thank you for an insightful review. A 500 page book really needs to be four stars or above, don't you think, to warrant the time involved in reading it.

  2. Moreover, like so many in Generation-X/Y, Eggers can’t seem to figure out why he is being forced by society to do something as menial as, you know, earn a salary and pay rent. Why can’t he spend all his time playing Frisbee with his brother and trying to get laid? I mean, c’mon – he’s SPECIAL! This is tiresome. There were too many times when I wanted to tell him, “Suck it up. Get a job and stop whining!”
    FWIW, that mentality is not limited to Gen-X. I had a remarkable conversation with a boomer co-worker who complained that his father wouldn't pay for his college (because the co-worker had been doing drugs), so he was forced to work his way through school. He was offended when I mentioned that I too had to pay for my own school (because my folks had four kids in college at that point, and I could pay for my own); it seems that mine wasn't as bad as his for some reason (mainly because I ended up having fun in college and he didn't).
    John
    PS – If you'll have me over to dinner, I'll help wash up! 8-)

  3. I know! The bad part is that he's more-or-less my age (though it covers his years from early 20s to early 30s) — I wonder if I'd read it 10 years ago I'd be more sympathetic to his POV. Probably not. :)

  4. FS — there is a bit of "return on investment" in a big book — and I want big books to be "worth it". For example, I gave that surfing-detective book 3 stars, too but for different reasons. It was short and fun — so my expectations were pretty modest.

  5. Wonderful review, Steve! I started this book a few years back but for some reason dropped it in between. Your comment – "Eggers can’t seem to figure out why he is being forced by society to do something as menial as, you know, earn a salary and pay rent" – made me smile :) I am sorry to know that Eggers failed your dinner test. But after reading your review, I would like to give this book a try again.

  6. sounds like an intersting story that is ruined by the storyteller. The title was a bit over the top and that kind of thinking tends to turn me off. Well, unless I am the one doing the thinking. might check it out in the future on audio book if the library has it, otherwise I may pass.

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