A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

by Dave Eggers

Published by Simon & Schuster

375 pages, 2000

Buy it online






Appealingly Self Indulgent

Reviewed by Janice A. Farringer


Self indulgent, whiney, age appropriate: these are the words that spring to mind after reading Dave Eggers' new autobiographical book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. But the book is very appealing anyway.

Dave Eggers, a founder of Might magazine in San Francisco, had previous seconds of fame by reporting a minor celebrity's death, deliberately falsely, claiming it was satire. "Why should some dramedy star moron loser be mourned by millions, when other people are not?"

Might magazine, and this sort of story, apparently appealed to the young, new media crowd. The magazine did not survive. Dave moved on to an editing job in New York with Esquire.

In Heartbreaking, young Dave, the Tragic Guy (his description), records his journey from college student, son of parents who both succumb to cancer within a month of each other, to guardian by default of his 7-year-old brother, Toph.

This is modern Peter Pan with an unresolved ending. Dave wants to be Peter and never grow up. He has all the hip reasons why he shouldn't have to. He is raising the "lost boy," Toph, a kid leading a kid. It works. Must work. Dave wills it to work. He loves his brother and is doing the best he can. We cheer, then reality sets in.

The single parent difficulties and the growing up without loving parents difficulties are recorded, joked about, raged about. Dave is bitter, angry, scared. He likes that. He likes the attention. Maybe his raw existential howling is a tribute to all of the young stoic single parents who had a stiff upper lip before him. Good! Let's be honest. Let's complain. Raising a kid in your 20s, alone, is not easy. Most people keep it to themselves. Dave speaks for the rest.

"... I'm trying to get your stupid fucking attention I've been trying to show you this, just been trying to show you this -- " Do we care to know this much about Dave? Yes. It is the international pastime, after all, knowing everything, about anyone, to know we are not alone in the universe. What is unusual is to see someone tell it on paper, instead of a television talk show. It is more permanent, you know. Every thought, nuance and stray story -- put out there. No filters.

Dave can definitely write. He can charm and make you laugh right out loud. He can string together 15 thoughts on a page because that is what he was thinking at the time. Stream of consciousness -- the single parent/young person/ orphan, trapped by responsibility and surrounded by others who aren't. I cannot think where these thoughts might have been recorded before. It is all so detailed. Down on paper, not forgotten, made to hang together. It must have been cathartic.

Dave as Peter Pan is not particularly appealing with his creative facial hair (his description), sexual indiscrimination and age appropriate language. But hey, he is young and will regret all this later. Or not. What he will never regret is doing the right thing by Toph and I really think he tried and presumably is still trying. Toph is not lost and that is what counts.

Surely, this is a must read for those under 30. All the media stuff, the friends in trouble stuff. For those of us older, wiser and just as tired as Dave, we will see our parent selves and perhaps recognize that doing the best you can is very often good enough. | April 2000


Janice A. Farringer is a writer and creative writing teacher living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.