Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Literary Bite: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

I remember seeing A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius on our bookshelf at home way back in high school. Drawn in by the intriguing title and colorful cover art I asked my mama if I should read it. “Eh, you could…but don’t bother. It’s very much a first novel,” she responded. So I skipped it altogether until this winter. Overall I like Dave Eggers – Zeitoun was great, What is the What was okay, and any reader of my Best of the Week posts knows that I love love LOVE McSweeney’s

After reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I have to agree with Mama – this book gets a solid Meh. It’s definitely not bad. There are touching and sad moments, and funny moments too. I read it all and enjoyed parts of it, but overall it kind of fell flat. 

It’s Egger’s memoir - young guy in his 20s who raises his little brother after their parents die. It’s a biography of youth in the 90s, in all its self-absorbed glory. 

According to the NYT, “Eggers is the self-conscious representative of his generation -- a 20-something slacker living in a slovenly apartment and starting up a satirical magazine, Might, that among other things parodies the media's portrayal of 20-somethings. On the other, he is its very antithesis: an almost 1950's-style responsible adult, attending parent-teacher conferences, fixing Toph meals and reading to him at bedtime.”

The writing style is arrogant, in a kind of ironic way…but also kind of not ironic. By that I mean that Eggers seems to think he can get away with saying certain things because he’s saying them “ironically,” but really maybe he’s just obnoxious? Take the title for example: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Ironic? Self-satirical? Or arrogant? I think both. Eggers says himself, "Still though, I think if you're not self-obsessed, you're probably boring." And, "If you don't want anyone to know about your existence, you might as well kill yourself. You're taking up space, air."

But I did really enjoy the relationship between Eggers and his brother Toph. It felt so real – siblings who  are sometimes nice to each other, sometimes mean, but underneath it all really care. But then on top of that normalcy, Eggers is also the parent. It creates an interesting dynamic. 

"His brain is my laboratory, my depository. Into it I can stuff the books I choose, the television shows, the movies, my opinion about elected officials, historical events, neighbors, passers-by. He is my 24-hour classroom, my captive audience, forced to ingest everything I deem worthwhile."

Toph was my favorite character. He was the smartest and best, and even Eggers seems to agree. 

Overall, like I said, I vote meh. But a lot of people really like this book, so maybe I'm wrong?