I enjoyed ‘The Circle‘ by Dave Eggers earlier this year but it has to be said that the core message about the evils of the Internet was pretty overdone. However, what Eggers lacks in subtlety, he makes up for in irony and it’s therefore unsurprising that he gave his memoir the title ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’. First published in 2000, this was Eggers’ first book which is a loose account of his life following the deaths of his parents from cancer in the early 1990s within six weeks of each other. At the age of twenty-one, Eggers found himself to be the unofficial guardian of his eight-year-old brother Christopher known as Toph. They moved from the suburbs of Chicago to California where Eggers later co-founded the satirical magazine ‘Might’.
Having given his memoir a deliberately overblown title, Eggers is sharply self-critical about his own work. In a lengthy preface, he makes it clear that the book is a fictionalised account of real events and that he has taken a number of creative liberties with regard to dialogue and narrative – not entirely dissimilar to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle cycle. Eggers shares Knausgaard’s penchant for long paragraphs bordering on a stream of consciousness and even admits that the book becomes “kind of uneven” after page 123. Indeed, the first four chapters outlining the deaths of his parents could easily be read as a stand-alone work which I think would have much wider appeal compared with the book as a whole.
However, from this point onwards, the book becomes a much looser list of anecdotes, some of which are more compelling than others. Much of the second half of ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’ focuses on Eggers’ work setting up the satirical magazine ‘Might’ and unless you have a particular interest in small independent business start-ups in California in the early 1990s, this aspect will have fairly limited appeal.
Nevertheless, despite the lack of structure, I enjoyed Eggers’ cynicism and his prose is articulate, inventive and often witty. However, I don’t think I have read the best of his work yet and I would still like to read his novels ‘What is the What’ and ‘Zeitoun’ which have both been highly recommended.