A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and the Modern Memoir

“Everything that happens to us leaves traces, everything contributes imperceptibly to our development.”

—Goethe

There’s a hardcover edition of Dave Eggers’ first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, in which the text of the story actually starts on the book’s cover. There is no title page or copyright or About the Author; the story comprises the entire book, literally cover to cover.

I point this out because A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius does the same thing, albeit less obviously. Eggers’ memoir also starts on the front cover, what with its over-the-top title and  overtly pretentious cover art (by Komar and Melamid). In other words, if I’m judging this book by its cover, I’m guessing it’s written by Eckhart Tolle.

Once inside, the book includes a page that simply says “This was uncalled for” before a copyright page that includes a “sexual orientation scale,”* a “Rules and Suggestions for Enjoying this Book,” a preface, and an acknowledgements section that runs 25 pages, outlines his main themes, and concludes with a drawing of a stapler.

*With one being perfectly straight and 10 perfectly gay, Eggers gives himself a three.

One of those Eggers-elucidated main themes is “The Painfully, Endlessly Self-Conscious Book Aspect” which he immediately concedes is “probably obvious enough already.” This theme itself is broken into a second part: “The Knowingness about the Book’s Self-Conscious Aspect.”

Now, when you’re reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and you get to this part, where you haven’t even started the “text” yet, you have an important decision to make. If you scoff and find Eggers’ theatricality a bit smarmy and think “Enough already” or “Get on with it,” then you should probably stop there. He has alienated you, and you will not like him. But if, like me, this is essentially what you yourself would like to write one day (although now noting that your acknowledgements page will have to pay debt to Eggers’, adding another layer of self-consciousness), A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius might just live up to its title.

All of Eggers’ pre-text posturing establishes a playful ambience for what is decidedly not a playful book. In fact, for the first 123 pages, Eggers’ descriptions of what it is like to watch both of your parents die and subsequently become the primary guardian for your eight-year-old brother Toph are all the more jarring precisely because of the mood he established beforehand. The style counters the substance rather than complementing it, which in theory sounds terrible but in practice amplifies the resonance of the text.

Eggers then launches into a transcription of his long audition/interview with a producer of MTV’s The Real World. This is supposed to be the book’s transition from a focus on external conflicts (his parents’ deaths) to more internal and solipsistic ones. We know this as readers because, as you may suspect by now, this is not actually a transcription of his long audition/interview with The Real World; instead, it is a narrative device pretending to be that in order for Eggers to reveal information—mostly anecdotal—that could have come up in his actual audition/interview but didn’t. And we know this is the book’s transition because Eggers comes right out and says, “[S]queezing all these things into the Q&A makes complete the transition from the book’s first half, which is less self-conscious, to the second half, which is increasingly self-devouring.”

All this meta-self-consciousness, though, is not just a manner of telling the story; in a way, it becomes the story. The second half of the memoir deals more with Eggers’ internal consciousness and his struggles to reconcile the person he was with the one he has to be in his new role as Toph’s guardian. How we define ourselves—whether it’s as the good guy, the sensitive type, the winner*—goes a long way toward explaining our own actions (i.e. “I’m not the type of guy who does that”). And Eggers has to cope with an abrupt shift from being a 21-year-old college student to being a 21-year-old parent—which pretty much entails wholesale changes in what is permissible and what isn’t.

*Or, in my case, all three.

The result for Eggers personally is a bit uneven; he does his best to maintain a twentysomething’s social life and his old, playful relationship with his brother while taking a hard-line approach at times and constantly worrying that Toph will be murdered while he himself is out having fun. Textually, though, it almost always remains entertaining, since Eggers’ deeply personal and light-hearted style foils the often heavy-handed dilemmas he faces while also indicating how he managed to handle them.

It’s not perfect, and it’s not for everyone. But A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a refreshingly different take on modern maturation in the memoir form. It deals with big-picture questions like “How do we define ourselves when we lose everything we naively thought would just endure forever?” without ever getting preachy or self-pitying or trite. And in doing so, Eggers’ work just might leave its traces on you.

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