Excerpt from A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

by Dave Eggers

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2000, 416 pages
    Feb 2001, 464 pages

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"That thing is handy, huh?" I ask my mother, walking past her, toward the kitchen.

"Yeah, it's the cat's meow," she says.

I get a popsicle from the refrigerator and come back to the family room.

They took my mother's stomach out about six months ago. At that point, there wasn't a lot left to remove -- they had already taken out [I would use the medical terms here if I knew them] the rest of it about a year before. Then they tied the [something] to the [something], hoped that they had removed the offending portion, and set her on a schedule of chemotherapy. But of course they didn't get it all. They had left some of it and it had grown, it had come back, it had laid eggs, was stowed away, was stuck to the side of the spaceship. She had seemed good for a while, had done the chemo, had gotten the wigs, and then her hair had grown back -- darker, more brittle. But six months later she began to have pain again -- Was it indigestion? It could just be indigestion, of course, the burping and the pain, the leaning over the kitchen table at dinner; people have indigestion; people take Tums; Hey Mom, should I get some Tums? -- but when she went in again, and they had "opened her up" -- a phrase they used -- and had looked inside, it was staring out at them, at the doctors, like a thousand writhing worms under a rock, swarming, shimmering, wet and oily -- Good God! -- or maybe not like worms but like a million little podules, each a tiny city of cancer, each with an unruly, sprawling, environmentally careless citizenry with no zoning laws whatsoever. When the doctor opened her up, and there was suddenly light thrown upon the world of cancer-podules, they were annoyed by the disturbance, and defiant. Turn off. The fucking. Light. They glared at the doctor, each podule, though a city unto itself, having one single eye, one blind evil eye in the middle, which stared imperiously, as only a blind eye can do, out at the doctor. Go. The. Fuck. Away. The doctors did what they could, took the whole stomach out, connected what was left, this part to that, and sewed her back up, leaving the city as is, the colonists to their manifest destiny, their fossil fuels, their strip malls and suburban sprawl, and replaced the stomach with a tube and a portable external IV bag. It's kind of cute, the IV bag. She used to carry it with her, in a gray backpack -- it's futuristic-looking, like a synthetic ice pack crossed with those liquid food pouches engineered for space travel. We have a name for it. We call it "the bag."

My mother and I are watching TV. It's the show where young amateur athletes with day jobs in marketing and engineering compete in sports of strength and agility against male and female bodybuilders. The bodybuilders are mostly blond and are impeccably tanned. They look great. They have names that sound fast and indomitable, names like American cars and electronics, like Firestar and Mercury and Zenith. It is a great show.

"What is this?" she asks, leaning toward the TV. Her eyes, once small, sharp, intimidating, are now dull, yellow, droopy, strained -- the spitting gives them a look of constant exasperation.

"The fighting show thing," I say.

"Hmm," she says, then turns, lifts her head to spit.

"Is it still bleeding?" I ask, sucking on my popsicle.


We are having a nosebleed. While I was in the bathroom, she was holding the nose, but she can't hold it tight enough, so now I relieve her, pinching her nostrils with my free hand. Her skin is oily, smooth.

"Hold it tighter," she says.

"Okay," I say, and hold it tighter. Her skin is hot.

Toph's shoes continue to rumble.

A month ago Beth was awake early; she cannot remember why. She walked down the stairs, shushing the green carpet, down to the foyer's black slate floor. The front door was open, with only the screen door closed. It was fall, and cold, and so with two hands she closed the large wooden door, click, and turned toward the kitchen. She walked down the hall and into the kitchen, frost spiderwebbed on the corners of its sliding glass door, frost on the bare trees in the backyard. She opened the refrigerator and looked inside. Milk, fruit, IV bags dated for proper use. She closed the refrigerator. She walked from the kitchen into the family room, where the curtains surrounding the large front window were open, and the light outside was white. The window was a bright silver screen, lit from behind. She squinted until her eyes adjusted. As her eyes focused, in the middle of the screen, at the end of the driveway, was my father, kneeling.

Copyright © 2000 by David ("Dave") Eggers

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