A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Part 1)

heartbreaking work cover

This memoir, by Dave Eggers, is a Pulitzer Prize finalist.  It’s a national bestseller, with great praise on the front cover, back cover, and inside pages from places as varied as The New York Times to The San Francisco Chronicle to London Review of Books.  If you want to read a book with accolades, this is the one.

It’s also very, very long.

I have yet to finish it.

Now, I may yet finish this book, but this book is at times depressing, at times satirical, and at times delves into flow-of-consciousness that I find hard to read for hours at a time (and, since there are not many “scene breaks,” but the scenes keep going on and on (and on and on), I feel like I do have to keep reading for hours because there’s no good place to stop).  And, as I’ve kept reading this in small segments here and there, I’ve realized something: I’m only persevering in reading this book to write this review, not for the enjoyment of the book.  Not that it’s not a good book, and not that I don’t want to finish the book someday, but for me this is not healthy.  So I’m going to write a review of what I’ve read thus far, place this book down for now, and return to it at a future date.  Thus the Part 1 in the title of this post.  Hopefully, someday, there will be a Part 2.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is about the heartbreaking life of Dave, who, at the fresh young age of 21, is suddenly required to raise his seven-year-old brother Toph.  Why?  Well, both their mom and dad died of cancer within weeks of each other.  Dave and Toph have another older brother and sister, but for some reason the responsibility falls on Dave.

In order to start a fresh new life, Dave, Toph, and their brother and sister move from Chicago across the country to sunny California.  There, things never go as smoothly as either of them like, and Dave struggles with raising Toph, striving to be the parent Toph needs, while also struggling with the everyday realities of adult life.

This book is broken into sections instead of chapters, and each section more or less works as a “short story.”  Sort of.  There are bits and pieces of each section that bleed into the previous section and the following section, so in order to fully understand what’s going on in each section you must read the previous sections.  Each section is anywhere from thirty to fifty pages long, in semi-tiny print on big pages, so be prepared to sit for a long time in a well-lit area if you want to finish a section in a single sitting.

Dave Eggers has a unique writing style, a bit of a mess, which fits perfectly into the messiness that was his life (I don’t know how Mr. Eggers is doing now–this book is about events that took place in the 90’s, and it was first published in 2000.  Okay, so it took me a while to notice this book and decide to read it).  He goes from straight narration to inner monologuing to satire to pure humor to imaginative fourth-wall breaking conversations between the characters, all without skipping a beat.  It can be a bit jarring at times, but it’s interesting to read this haphazard style that at times wonderfully embodies the rush, the insanity, the self-seeking reality that is any young person’s early twenties (and then add the sudden single-parent role and thrust that in the mix).  It can also be very tiring and at times feels like too much, like he was being paid by the word, or like reading the highs and lows of a manic-depressive bipolar life.  Of course, I guess many lives can read like that when condensed to their highs and lows.

I know that memoirs are rarely neat, that real lives are seldom tied into neat little bows, but at times while reading this I wondered how much was too much.  How many pages can we read about this or that, does this interview really need to go on for forty pages?  Does this spurt of rage-enfused words really go on for twenty pages?  Wait, why isn’t this part a section on its own?  Were these sections supposed to represent years? (No, that’s not right.  It doesn’t fit)

Reading this book has given me a headache.  And that’s never good for me.  I do want to finish, to see if Dave and Toph find any sort of semblance of normalcy, but for now, I need to take a break.

Maybe I’ll read a shorter book next.

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