Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius - Dave Eggers

2000; 437 pages. Awards : NY Times #1 Bestseller; nominated for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize (General Non-Fiction). Genre : Memoir; Fictional Non-Fiction (yeah I know, that's an oxymoron). Overall Rating : B.
This is David Eggers' break-out book, giving his reflections on about an 8-year period of his life, starting around age 22. His parents die within a few weeks/months of each other, leaving their four children orphaned. Dave's older brother (Bill) has a full-time job, and his older sister (Beth) is just starting law school, so it falls to our author to be the family guardian of 8-year Christopher ("Toph"), despite having no parenting skills. It's a coming-of-age tale, as Eggers struggles to be both a mentor and a buddy to Toph, while also starting up an off-beat magazine ("Might", patterned after "Wired"), holding down various jobs to make ends meet, and somehow finding time to pursue the opposite sex.
What's To Like...
The literary style is unique. Eggers deftly weaves stream-of-consciousness and techniques like the "Fourth Wall" into the narrative. There are philosophical musings - the Might crew strives hard to adhere to a "we're doing this for Art's sake, not for financial reward", all the while knowing that without readers and advertisers, the magazine is toast.
There's a gentle self-deprecating humor running throughout the book. Eggers recounts the foibles of his love life, dealing with his Mom's ashes ("cremains"), baby-sitter anxiety, and his I'm-gonna-die experience which turned out instead to be passing a kidney stone.
The writing is polished (see below), which seems surprising, given that Eggers was still in his 20's when he wrote this. Last but not least, be sure to check out the "dull" sections of the book - the copyright page, the acknowledgements, etc. Eggers' wit is there as well.
OTOH, Eggers can get quite wordy at times (the contrived transcript of the MTV interview being a salient example). Lots of people found AHWOSG to be too self-indulgent (but isn't that what a memoir is all about?). By his own account, Eggers also takes substantial "literary license" with the facts here (but isn't that what an 'authorized' memoir is all about?).
Finally, I suggest skipping the 40-odd page prologue, in which Eggers self-analyzes himself and his book, and go directly to page 1. If at the end, you've been thrilled by the story, you can always go back and read the intro.
Excerpt (first two sentences, actually)...
"Through the small tall bathroom window the December yard is gray and scratchy, the trees calligraphic. Exhaust from the dryer billows out of the house and up, breaking apart while tumbling into the white sky." Sigh. I wish I could write like that.
You'll like AHWOSG if...
The style reminded me a lot of A Confederacy of Dunces, or perhaps a David Sedaris book, but with mellower humor. I'm not big on reading biographies and memoirs, but I liked AHWOSG. The Americana descriptiveness is nice, and I can see how this would appeal to the Pulitzer peeps. So I'll give it a "B", and wonder just how good of a write Eggers will be when he's gotten a couple decades of experience under his belt.


L said...

You should get extra review points for using the word salient. I've heard the self-indulgent claim, I mean look at the title, but like you say what else is a memoir of this type if not a - look at me and how fabulous I am - sort of book. I really like ACOD and Sedaris so I might have to give this one a try. On a bit of a non-fiction kick this year.

Trixie said...

I enjoyed this book immensely. I found Dave's ability to pull himself and his little brother up by the bootstrings to go on with their lives despite their tremendous losses inspiring. Of course it was self-indulgent, but what can you expect from a memoir by a twenty-something. He said "Look at me, I have something to say" and yet, I thought his message was an important one.

hamilcar barca said...

Lula - the title is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. he has a page of "how to read this book" which advises you which parts of AHWOSG are skippable. of course, that's also tongue-in-cheek.

Trixie - i'm glad somebody else liked this book. my only problem with the ending was that we never get to see how Toph turns out. he's entering high school as the story closes. did he graduate? go on to college? become a drug-addict?

in any event, Toph's story has to have a better ending than Beth's.