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A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius Paperback – February 13, 2001

3.4 out of 5 stars 1,210 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Dave Eggers is a terrifically talented writer; don't hold his cleverness against him. What to make of a book called A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: Based on a True Story? For starters, there's a good bit of staggering genius before you even get to the true story, including a preface, a list of "Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of This Book," and a 20-page acknowledgements section complete with special mail-in offer, flow chart of the book's themes, and a lovely pen-and-ink drawing of a stapler (helpfully labeled "Here is a drawing of a stapler:").

But on to the true story. At the age of 22, Eggers became both an orphan and a "single mother" when his parents died within five months of one another of unrelated cancers. In the ensuing sibling division of labor, Dave is appointed unofficial guardian of his 8-year-old brother, Christopher. The two live together in semi-squalor, decaying food and sports equipment scattered about, while Eggers worries obsessively about child-welfare authorities, molesting babysitters, and his own health. His child-rearing strategy swings between making his brother's upbringing manically fun and performing bizarre developmental experiments on him. (Case in point: his idea of suitable bedtime reading is John Hersey's Hiroshima.)

The book is also, perhaps less successfully, about being young and hip and out to conquer the world (in an ironic, media-savvy, Gen-X way, naturally). In the early '90s, Eggers was one of the founders of the very funny Might Magazine, and he spends a fair amount of time here on Might, the hipster culture of San Francisco's South Park, and his own efforts to get on to MTV's Real World. This sort of thing doesn't age very well--but then, Eggers knows that. There's no criticism you can come up with that he hasn't put into A.H.W.O.S.G. already. "The book thereafter is kind of uneven," he tells us regarding the contents after page 109, and while that's true, it's still uneven in a way that is funny and heartfelt and interesting.

All this self-consciousness could have become unbearably arch. It's a testament to Eggers's skill as a writer--and to the heartbreaking particulars of his story--that it doesn't. Currently the editor of the footnote-and-marginalia-intensive journal McSweeney's (the last issue featured an entire story by David Foster Wallace printed tinily on its spine), Eggers comes from the most media-saturated generation in history--so much so that he can't feel an emotion without the sense that it's already been felt for him. What may seem like postmodern noodling is really just Eggers writing about pain in the only honest way available to him. Oddly enough, the effect is one of complete sincerity, and--especially in its concluding pages--this memoir as metafiction is affecting beyond all rational explanation. --Mary Park --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Literary self-consciousness and technical invention mix unexpectedly in this engaging memoir by Eggers, editor of the literary magazine McSweeney's and the creator of a satiric 'zine called Might, who subverts the conventions of the memoir by questioning his memory, motivations and interpretations so thoroughly that the form itself becomes comic. Despite the layers of ironic hesitation, the reader soon discerns that the emotions informing the book are raw and, more importantly, authentic. After presenting a self-effacing set of "Rules and Suggestions for the Enjoyment of this Book" ("Actually, you might want to skip much of the middle, namely pages 209-301") and an extended, hilarious set of acknowledgments (which include an itemized account of his gross and net book advance), Eggers describes his parents' horrific deaths from cancer within a few weeks of each other during his senior year of college, and his decision to move with his eight year-old brother, Toph, from the suburbs of Chicago to Berkeley, near where his sister, Beth, lives. In California, he manages to care for Toph, work at various jobs, found Might, and even take a star turn on MTV's The Real World. While his is an amazing story, Eggers, now 29, mainly focuses on the ethics of the memoir and of his behavior--his desire to be loved because he is an orphan and admired for caring for his brother versus his fear that he is attempting to profit from his terrible experiences and that he is only sharing his pain in an attempt to dilute it. Though the book is marred by its ending--an unsuccessful parody of teenage rage against the cruel world--it will still delight admirers of structural experimentation and Gen-Xers alike. Agent, Elyse Cheney, Sanford Greenberger Assoc.; 7-city author tour. (Feb.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 437 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (February 13, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375725784
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375725784
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1,210 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,502 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Dave Eggers is the author of six previous books, including "Zeitoun," a nonfiction account a Syrian-American immigrant and his extraordinary experience during Hurricane Katrina and "What Is the What," a finalist for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award. That book, about Valentino Achak Deng, a survivor of the civil war in southern Sudan, gave birth to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, run by Mr. Deng and dedicated to building secondary schools in southern Sudan. Eggers is the founder and editor of McSweeney's, an independent publishing house based in San Francisco that produces a quarterly journal, a monthly magazine ("The Believer"), and "Wholphin," a quarterly DVD of short films and documentaries. In 2002, with Nínive Calegari he co-founded 826 Valencia, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center for youth in the Mission District of San Francisco. Local communities have since opened sister 826 centers in Chicago, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Ann Arbor, Seattle, and Boston. In 2004, Eggers taught at the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and there, with Dr. Lola Vollen, he co-founded Voice of Witness, a series of books using oral history to illuminate human rights crises around the world. A native of Chicago, Eggers graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in journalism. He now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two children.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The arch tone of the title and the wit of the preface may blind readers to the real wonder of Egger's book: he's telling the truth. In a world of air quotes and the constant misuse of the word "ironic", Eggers is trying very hard to tell a difficult story. He writes of the death of his parents in the most unflattering terms, without the soft focus and belabored sentiment our culture has lead us to expect. The slow death of someone you love is sometimes horrible, and this story never denies that, or the way your mind escapes from that horror and focuses on trivia. While the writing may be self-conscious, it isn't pretending to be anything else, and the wonder is that Eggers is willing to accept everything that comes into his head, regardless of whether it seems appropriate. No other book has so honestly touched me since the death of my father, or more accurately captured what his dying meant to me.
Several reviewers have written of the way the book loses focus after the first section, but to me that is one of its strengths. In fiction the protagonist doesn't wander around pointlessly, especially not after a significant event like the death of a parent, but in the real world lives are untidy. As a new parent I appreciated the author's experimental attitude toward child rearing as well as his attempt to create a fascinating life for himself. The quality of the writing made his business woes, his menus, and his Frisbee obsession equally fascinating. The memoirs of a man who isn't afraid to show his own warts, but is touchingly considerate of those closest to him, this is a kind and engaging book.
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Format: Hardcover
Clearly this book isn't for everyone. It's incredibly self-reflexive. It's more than willing to employ a device while simultaneously satirizing it. Eggers, as described in his own words, is rarely likeable, noble, humble, or charming. Instead, he's self-indulgent, arrogant, and so full of neurosis that Woody Allen looks calm and confident in comparison.
And while these factors will elicit cries of how overrated the work is, I find them the fuel behind what is a darkly compelling fever dream. Eggers takes the theme of being consumed (by cancer, by being young and wanting to make a mark on the world, by the responsibility of raising a child while maintaining friendships) and exposes its results in a harsh light. And it's angry and difficult and ... well ... real.
Far different and more challenging than the back-patting, self-congratulatory, "Gee, aren't I a strong and admirable person for surviving these tribulations?" tone that fills most stories of this genre. I congratulate him on avoiding making things neat and tidy. The result is an astonishing, staggering, and, ultimately, heartbreaking work.
3 Comments 163 of 176 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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Format: Paperback
Maybe I'm just too old. Maybe I'm just not cool or hip enough. It has to be me, right? After all, this book was a book of the year according to the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and USA Today among others. But I found it unreadable. Really. Sixty pages into this book and I wanted to just give up on it. Both of Eggers' parents died of cancer within a few months of each other and this is his memoir of their death and his raising of his younger brother. It actually starts off OK but fairly early in the book Eggers runs out of things to say. This probably could have been a good short story but at over 400 pages it just drags on and on endlessly.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
I'm certainly not of the MTV generation, more like the AARP generation. This book cuts across generational lines with witty, profane, touching prose. The last few pages left me literally breathless. I'm going to pass this book around. But not before I read it again.
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Format: Paperback
I tried to like this book, really and truly I did. I thought it would be clever and unusual and brilliantly worded like a David Foster Wallace book can be. After all, I'd unfortunately paid good money for it. And it's not easy to be so critical about an autobiographical book in which the author's parents die and leave him raising his much younger brother - you really want to root for this book and the author behind it.

But it's awful. It doesn't matter whether Eggers really believes he's clever or is merely posturing as such for a lark. I'm sorry to be harsh, but if Mr. Eggers is anything in person like he is on the page, people must flee the room when they see him moving their way at a cocktail party. I can't explain why I felt compelled to finish this dull and tedious book, other than I felt it simply *had* to get better at some point. It doesn't.

Do yourself a HUGE favor: pass this one by. I wish Mr. Eggers and his family all the best, but a decent turn of phrase once in a while does not an author make. Don't believe anyone who would have you think that critics of this book simply don't 'get' it. In this case, there is no substance whatsoever and precious little in the smoke-and-mirrors department, either.

If you're looking for clever and/or funny, you'd be better off with Richard Russo's fabulous "Straight Man", Tom Perrotta's "Little Children", Katherine Dunn's "Geek Love", John Kennedy Toole's "A Confederacy Of Dunces" or a thousand other books I could rattle off. Really, ANY book is better than AHWOSG. It's that bad. Sorry. :)
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