A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusI 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.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

  1. I read this book maybe a decade ago, and remember nothing about it except for the fact that I loved it, and have read everything Eggers has published since, from novels to his McSweeney’s Quarterly short story compilations and the Believer magazine he edits.

    I found The Circle the worst of anything he’d written, overblown and obvious and not nearly as compelling as works like ‘Zeitoun’ and ‘What Is The What’ and this, which are among my favourite reads ever. I’m glad it is still out there and being read, and the balance he finds in tragedy and comedy is truly impressive. (The inner pages with the Pubisher’s Information is still something I show friends when we visit bookshops together!)

    Glad you enjoyed it!

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  2. Was attracted to this review having read The Circle too. And also Knausgaard is next on our book club list. It sounds a bit like the Circle in the way Eggers has clear talent and energy, he does tend to focus in these two books about businesses. I found The Circle clever and energetic and memorable but not ultimately emotionally satisfying.

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  3. I’ve only read What is the What so far and that left an indelible impression on me. I will read more.

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  4. Tredynas Days

    Just looked through your list of posts and was interested to see what you said about this book. I got a third of the way through and then gave up (something I rarely do): like you I enjoyed the opening sections, then thought it became tedious and repetitive – and rather too pleased with itself. Witty, though, and inventive. I still haven’t read Knausgaard, and have reservations about this kind of fictional-autobiography. Maybe I’ll succumb eventually.

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