Book Review: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers


3/5 Stars.

The opening chapter of this (sort-of) memoir blew me away: Eggers’ mother is dying of cancer, and the way he describes it is messy and sad and, yes, funny. Both of his parents die within weeks of each other and it’s so tragic it’s almost unfathomable. I was into it, and then the rest of the book happened…and I just didn’t really care about anything that was happening anymore: Eggers,┬áthe legal guardian of his young brother, living life as a listless twenty-something in San Francisco in the 90s.

Full disclosure: I was worried going into this that my love for David Foster Wallace would taint my enjoyment of it. That Eggers would inevitably come across to me as the lesser of the two PoMo Daves. Maybe I would have appreciated it more otherwise, but so much of it felt derivative, and I kept thinking to myself that I wish I was reading DFW.

I actually really enjoyed Eggers’ postmodern gimmicks: the notes and acknowledgements at the beginning of the book, people breaking character in the middle of a conversation to provide meta literary analysis (via Eggers) of what’s currently happening. That sense of clever self-awareness is prevalent throughout, and it’s smart and it’s interesting: it provides a worthy commentary of memoirs as a literary art form, and is a bold achievement of brutally honest self-analysis. These were my favorite parts of the book aside from the first chapter.

The thing that’s lacking, though (and the thing that DFW really nailed) is sincerity. Eggers may be authentic, sure, but he maintains a comfortable distance from emotion and sincerity. In fact, he’s actually pretty insufferable and obnoxious. His own sense of self-importance and self-obsession is on full display. And look, I understand and appreciate that his solipsism is a method of coping with the close proximity he feels to death. I get that he thinks that if he shares his suffering, he may succeed in diluting it and proving to himself that he suffered for a reason. After all, this whole thing is, of course, his attempt at coping with the tragedy of his parents’ death.

The thing is…I don’t really believe any of it. I don’t believe him. And so AHWOSG never really transcended for me. It sort of just felt like an exercise in postmodernism for the sake of it, and it’s hard as a reader not to feel cheated by that.

And honestly, maybe this is what he was going for: maybe we should feel cheated by memoirs.

There’s a sense of mania throughout, and a strong undercurrent of anger. I appreciate that anger, I even appreciate the stoicism and flippancy. I get it. I just craved some sincerity. Ultimately there wasn’t enough here to justify all the time spend enduring his ego.

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