A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

The Short Version: Dave Eggers recounts, in a fictionalized biographical way, his early twenties – his parents both dead of cancer, he and his younger brother have to learn how to make it together on their own.  An incredible amount of pretentious and soporific writing ensues.

The Review:  Let’s get one thing straight.  I’m the first person to be accused of talking too much, having a love affair with the English language, using fifteen words where three would do.  I know this, I accept it, and so do (most of) my friends and neighbors.  It is a joke, to be deployed at certain moments.  It is something to be admired from afar.  It is something that has, on numerous occasions, gotten me into more trouble than it was worth.  Hell, I write this book blog and ramble on, thinking you are interested in my opinions about a wide-ranging assortment of novels here in the still-early days of the 21st Century.

So what I’m saying is: when even I think you’re sounding like a pretentious jackass, you know something has gone too far.

And, to be honest, I found this book nearly insufferable.  I was reduced to skimming the last hundred-or-so pages because I just could. not. handle it.  And it all started so well is the thing.  The opening salvos of this novel are what makes McSweeney’s worth reading – you know there’s going to be stupid shit but, hey, also?  there’s going to be some gems.  Real true gems.  The opening of this book?  Gems, all 50ish pages of it.  The fake preface, the Author’s Foreword, even the table of contents.  It’s engaging.  It’s smart and VERY self-aware and I appreciated that.  Hell, he acknowledges how much of a pretentious ass he is and (speaking as a kindred spirit) that was a winning move.  It got me on his side, put me in the right frame of mind.  Also, I laughed, a lot.  I even got some of the little in-jokes that people might not have understood at the time – like when he thanks John Warner and then says “well, I did toss him $100 so isn’t that thanks enough?”  That’s hilarious, seeing as John’s book is sitting in front of me right now, signed and waiting to be read (and how I hope it will outpace Eggers’ debut).  Anyway, little did I know I should’ve taken Eggers’ warnings in the preface seriously: the book really goes off the rails after about chapter four.

See, those first four chapters are, indeed, rather novella-like in their cohesion.  There’s not much narrative tomfoolery and the story is relatively straightforward.  And, yes, even heartbreaking – moreso because it’s true.  Both parents, dying within a year, of different cancers.  That’s horrible.  Watching a 22 year old (…essentially me) try to find his place in the world with both parents gone, two older siblings already leading their own lives, and a younger brother to look out for… I can’t even imagine.  And it is a testament to Eggers’ strength of character that he not only survives but that he does, in fact, get some catharsis.  Sure, that catharsis happens in front of everyone (he published a Pulitzer-nominated novel about it) but, screw it, it’s the 21st Century and that’s par for the course these days.

The problem is that the book should’ve stopped as a novella.  It should’ve been far more ‘fictional’ than it was – and it should’ve been edited far further than it was.  The book began to lose me (and it happened precipitously) when, in the middle of a conversation with Toph (his brother) one night as Toph is going down for bed, the conversation becomes meta-textual.  It becomes Eggers using the character of his brother to argue with him about his progress on the novel and what he’s really doing with it.  The Eggers character even goes so far as to say something like “you’re out of character” or “you’re breaking character” or something like that.  This happens multiple times, throughout the course of the novel.  This is the sort of conversation that you’re supposed to have with yourself while writing (hello, NaNoWriMo) but it should probably be excised from the novel because it is absolutely insufferable.  It’s a funny trick at first but when it goes on for pages and pages?  And then recurs?  That’s just annoying.

Then, as the novel seems to degenerate into ramblings by the author that seem to just revolve around a single idea for, again, pages and pages…. and he just spits out every single word that came to his head, no editing, it’s just everything – every single thought that he thought – and oh, wouldn’t it be fantastic if I put it all down on the page?  Wouldn’t that just be wonderful?  I’m sure it would, I’m sure people would like that, if I wrote down everything that came to my mind, because, well, I’ve got a great mind and I’m doing great things and so I’m sure people would want to hear every word that comes out of said mind – it is a great mind.

…it’s that sort of thing.  And as the novel lists about, threatening to capsize but never quite rolling over, I found myself just blatantly not caring.  Even the 11th hour plot infusion – finding his mother’s ashes when he goes back to Chicago – wasn’t enough to get me back on the caring.  These characters (with the exception, maybe, of Toph – but I think that’s the point) are interchangeable and stupid.  I can’t remember the book that I just read – or magazine article or blog post or something – that featured a quote about this phenomenon but it was something along the lines of: “the lives of twentysomethings seem terribly interesting to those living them – and utterly boring to everyone else.”  This is a terrific, even perfect example of this literary malaise – that, listen, I too am guilty of.  Write what you know, right?  (hello again, NaNoWriMo)  But it requires more than that: you have to be willing to look at what you’re writing, look at your life, and say “wow, you know what?  As great as this story is to me… will anyone else find this remotely as fascinating?”

Rating: 2 out of 5.  Been a rough start to Year Three, folks.  Thank goodness for the Biblioracle, because otherwise we might’ve been in the midst of a two-book slide.  I have the funny feeling that, had I read this book as a junior in high school, I would’ve loved it.  I would’ve thought it was so brilliant, so moving, so terrifically fresh and unique.  Most of my friends who did read it then feel this way – but from the 23-year-old vantage point, having been (mostly) in the real world for a year and a half now and having been reading (as you can well see) for a very, very long time… well, look, I’m not going to fight Dave Eggers.  He’s a literary giant these days and I can’t do anything about that.  But his twentysomethings novel?  I expect more from my literature than “look how smart I am” – and so this fails on nearly every level.


  1. You should probably win some kind of medal for persevering to the end of this one, skimming or no. I have to say I made it 150 pages in and gleefully abandoned the book. It now serves as an improvised window-jam to let fresh air in when its warm (as I could care less if the book gets soaked in rain).

    Right there with you concerning the opening ‘gems’. They are gimmicks but gimmicks that work, at least for me (I know others who couldn’t even make it past them). But as soon as we settle into any kind of narrative or plot I lost my patience.

    Another great review, thanks.

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