A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Based on a True Story
By Dave Eggers
Vintage Canada Edition, 2001

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The First in our new series Revisiting the Modern Classics of Literature

Dave Eggers’ first book is a good place to start our new series, and indeed, inspired it. Upon its initial release in 2000, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius or A.H.W.O.S.G. as the author calls it in the text heading, is a singular, ragged, heartrending, funny, and endearingly weird memoir that is deeply personal yet highly readable and accessible. It’s about a family and life broken by the sudden and brutal loss of both a mother and a father, and the way a young adult and his eight year old brother bond together to create a new type of modern family/best-friendship in its wake. The book further serves, upon reflection these 15 years later, to be an interesting artifact of the mid-nineties San Francisco twenty-something culture (think back to early Silicon Valley and the time when Wired magazine was brand new) where the Chicago transplant forges a somewhat lawless, ambitious and freewheeling career in independent magazine publishing with friends at a time when the city fosters and welcomes the young, young ideas and enterprising (and talented) sorts with little to lose like Eggers. Despite his almost untouchable grief, and a bit of youthful recklessness he describes with candour, which is the domain of all twenty-somethings, the young writer makes a life on his own terms, forced to get up everyday like so many single parents who are needed by a child, and also executes work of creativity and diverse range (cartooning, professional graphic design work, magazine writing and editing, which is somewhat underplayed) which includes sleepless nights working on the body of what would become this book, a future finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and a personal and literary game-changer, inside a decade of personal sea changes.

It’s notable that for those many who rushed to read this book during its early years and may pull it down and read it again now, it’s full of surprises about the astute observances of the bygone ways of late eighties and early nineties life. This is striking especially with the almost certain radical changes in life (aging, losses) that has likely transpired in the life of the reader along with our culture, and the world, from publishing to book writing; the near death of print magazines and the sacred independence that was once revered for newspapers; the woefully short attention span encouraged by social media and competing apps; all the uses and abuses today of our technology and what has happened to reality in the wake of Reality TV. The themes are timeless: the endless beauty of the coming of age narrative and the nostalgia and pain of loss of essential people, while the only static thing in the world outside of that seems to be the shimmering repeated motif of two brothers, the author and Toph, playing Frisbee on various beaches throughout the book. Here is the first:

“I have thrown it perfectly, floats up, floats slowly, and he reaches it with time to spare, overtakes it, stops, turns, and catches it between his legs.

Oh, we are good. He’s only eight but together we are spectacular. We play by the shore, and we run barefoot, padding and scratching into the cold wet sand. We take four steps for each throw, and when we throw the world stops and gasps. We throw so far, and with such accuracy, and with such ridiculous beauty. We are perfection, harmony, young and lithe, fast like Indians.” (pg 67)

Who didn’t pretend to be in a McDonald’s commercial or the star of a TV show when playing at day to day childhood rituals? Eggers’ pride in his Frisbee skills is something of an everyday private fantasy of being seen, applauded and appreciated broadly and widely for the underappreciated work of parenting the brothers end up doing for each other, off the beach always misunderstood by the outside world and both lonely and peerless in their situation. In the Frisbee motif and through this book, Eggers wills this memory into actual fact, into cinematic beauty deserving of a score and a slow motion sports movie sequence.

Illustration of Dave Eggers
Illustration of Dave Eggers

The book is as affecting as ever in 2016. It’s even more affecting, surely, for readers who’ve now gone through relatable losses of essential figures- parents, grandparents, siblings, that the author experienced when he was college aged. The book holds up, not showing its age. It shines as a beacon of the new type of writing Dave Eggers introduced in his novel-style memoir that is unlike any of the other memoirs that became a major genre in literature at the time, a genre that stretched and strained readers over a decade or more from the unproven, unvetted, dark fantasy realm of deprivations and abuse to banal truths made rich by true blue writers with the gift.

At the turn of the Millennium, when A Heartbreaking Work arrived, the world was yet charged with some 90’s optimism that still embraced and didn’t quite see reason to fear technology. September 11th 2001, and the endless, irrevocable darkness it brought us was as yet unexpected. Y2K was “survived”, even. Music was diverse, Globalization and commercialization was debated, young people were savvy and educated and cared about global issues, and books were real things that we casually treasured as we bought them by the month, read them to tatters, and kept them, boxing in move after move. We didn’t know to reduce someone’s art or creativity to the dull, neutering slander of “content”. Writers had a hope to be paid. Photographers were highly exalted as the specialists they were with tools only they knew how to wield to create visual narratives that spoke for the rest of us who knew better than to mess with all that.

Writing in a style that was later christened “The New Sincerity” Dave Eggers interrogates himself and his family’s misfortunes in a bare, unflinching style that is unfettered (written as it was, expecting to be read only by friends and family) and is believably raw but never unkind to anyone who cannot take it (or speak for themselves). His loss of his mother, constant mother, the one figure none of us can ever not miss in our lives, no matter our upbringing, is something that backgrounds the entire text in a way that is gentle and loving, measured and yet rich. Dad is handled a little more roughly, befitting the distance of a dad in that milieu who worked a lot, was a lifelong alcoholic, and could be frightening. Both parents are colourful and yet ordinary, not given sainthood by their deaths, but rather given humanity and purpose that aims to be exactly truthful.  The simple brutal truth of the way these four children lost their parents feels like an insult even to state here, from this distance, all these years later. It’s incredible.  And Eggers handles the reporting of these details carefully and with love, gingerly; making it surprising on a second read to realize how little of the actual text deals with the darkest material. For the impact and emotion is greatly felt in each of the laughs these brothers find in their eventual Lost Boys adventure in California, the space they make in a household of two to give their grief time and room to breathe, the way they survive and accept each other because they have to and most critically, they were raised right. There is much brotherly love. An enviable amount of brotherly love. The book is very funny, evocative, and cinematic (even though the author has not assented to film the work that one could see as a viable Best Picture in the right hands).

Eggers publishing house, McSweeneys
Eggers publishing house, McSweeneys

There’s so much unspoken in this text, even at over 430 pages plus an Addenda. Eggers rarely gives into self-pity, and accepts his role as the de facto parent for his brother, as his older siblings have bigger lives, have stayed in school and moved away, in essence, beating him to the jump. Even though his sister is indicated as brother Toph’s guardian, this does not come to pass. Dave gives up his own plans (because he’s not had time to make any) and makes a sacrifice bigger than even many young fathers do to parent his brother in a way that seems to benefit Toph even if it is slapdash. It seems it’s meant to be, and it seems it all works out somehow. More than one subject’s telling of his personal loss and experience in a family, the book feels as if it was written as a love letter and gift to Toph and a memoir, and reads as if both the author and his little brother had final editing powers (while the writing was kept from him as a child, Toph would have almost grown up in the years between their parents’ deaths and the book’s publication). And, while one wonders about siblings Bill and Beth (both of whom are largely absent from the story which seems to be to the mutual satisfaction of siblings and author) and what they felt about the book, it seems beyond their rights to intervene, since they made their own singular life choices about the key issue at stake: the raising of their young brother.

The tears come, streaming in the early chapters of this book. The internet being what it is today, it tempts the reader to invade the already generous boundaries of this work and dig deeper, only to be sent into tears again to find that one of the older siblings also died not long after this book’s publication. These young people suffered so much, and so we invade no further. It’s all here in these pages, and it’s very good. The title appears to be tongue in cheek, and is the reason many of us millions picked it up off a table, smiling in expected irony, all the while hoping for truth, in a real bookstore that smelled of the finest comfort there is, in places that were our churches fifteen years ago, our sounds muffled, insulated by the very substance of all the thousands of written words of open hearts that invite us in, to look and to love unconditionally. This book is uncommonly successful in its aims: to give lives cut too short the funeral and the dirge they may have never wanted but so deserve. To make public declarations of love, and ensure life and legacy beyond these too frail bodies of us all.

The big surprise of the book is that title is really quite literal. It lives up to its own promise. AHWOSG is bold and revolutionary. It tests the forms of both coming of age fiction and memoir, and stands proudly alongside the finest classic works of the Bildungsroman such as Dickens’ Great Expectations or Austen or Bronte or Twain, even as it stands slouching in a deliberately second hand half tucked in T-Shirt and shorts instead of formal finery beyond the baroque cover image.

“I am there. I was there. Don’t you know that I am connected to you?” (pg 436)

downloadEggers was able to take true horror and make something with it that was founded on the book, its bravery and originality and its success and has taken flight well beyond it. He’s a fine example of true talent and its transcendent power, when paired with focus. Here came goodness and art out of tragedy and chaos, and his later work in literature and publishing (including not-for profit work and using his publishing house, McSweeney’s, to enable underrepresented writers such as southern Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng a generous platform for his own memoir, What is the What) are remarkable and inspiring to writers, publishers, editors and diarists, and all those whose ideals and imagination stretch beyond their horizons, including some who may desperately need a good reminder, a good read, or a good kick in the arse, like me.

Jacqueline Howell

Further reading: McSweeney’s 

What is the What?: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng By Dave Eggers

VAD Foundation