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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
    Paperback:
    Feb 2001, 464 pages

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It's not that our family has no taste, it's just that our family's taste is inconsistent. The wallpaper in the downstairs bathroom, though it came with the house, is the house's most telling decorative statement, featuring a pattern of fifteen or so slogans and expressions popular at the time of its installation. Right On, Neat-O, Outta Sight! -- arranged so they unite and abut in intriguing combinations. That-A-Way meets Way Out so that the A in That-A-Way creates A Way Out. The words are hand-rendered in stylized block letters, red and black against white. It could not be uglier, and yet the wallpaper is a novelty that visitors appreciate, evidence of a family with no pressing interest in addressing obvious problems of decor, and also proof of a happy time, an exuberant, fanciful time in American history that spawned exuberant and fanciful wallpaper.

The living room is kind of classy, actually -- clean, neat, full of heirlooms and antiques, an oriental rug covering the center of the hardwood floor. But the family room, the only room where any of us has ever spent any time, has always been, for better or for worse, the ultimate reflection of our true inclinations. It's always been jumbled, the furniture competing, with clenched teeth and sharp elbows, for the honor of the Most Wrong-looking Object. For twelve years, the dominant chairs were blood orange. The couch of our youth, that which interacted with the orange chairs and white shag carpet, was plaid -- green, brown and white. The family room has always had the look of a ship's cabin, wood paneled, with six heavy wooden beams holding, or pretending to hold, the ceiling above. The family room is dark and, save for a general sort of decaying of its furniture and walls, has not changed much in the twenty years we've lived here. The furniture is overwhelmingly brown and squat, like the furniture of a family of bears. There is our latest couch, my father's, long and covered with something like tan-colored velour, and there is the chair next to the couch, which five years ago replaced the bloodoranges, a sofa-chair of brownish plaid, my mother's. In front of the couch is a coffee table made from a cross section of a tree, cut in such a way that the bark is still there, albeit heavily lacquered. We brought it back, many years ago, from California and it, like most of the house's furniture, is evidence of an empathetic sort of decorating philosophy -- for aesthetically disenfranchised furnishings we are like the families that adopt troubled children and refugees from around the world -- we see beauty within and cannot say no.

One wall of the family room was and is dominated by a brick fireplace. The fireplace has a small recessed area that was built to facilitate indoor barbecuing, though we never put it to use, chiefly because when we moved in, we were told that raccoons lived somewhere high in the chimney. So for many years the recessed area sat dormant, until the day, about four years ago, that our father, possessed by the same odd sort of inspiration that had led him for many years to decorate the lamp next to the couch with rubber spiders and snakes, put a fish tank inside. The fish tank, its size chosen by a wild guess, ended up fitting perfectly.

"Hey hey!" he had said when he installed it, sliding it right in, with no more than a centimeter of give on either side. "Hey hey!" was something he said, and to our ears it sounded a little too Fonzie, coming as it did from a gray-haired lawyer wearing madras pants. "Hey hey!" he would say after such miracles, which were dizzying in their quantity and wonderment -- in addition to the Miracle of the Fish-tank Fitting, there was, for example, the Miracle of Getting the TV Wired Through the Stereo for True Stereo Sound, not to mention the Miracle of Running the Nintendo Wires Under the Wall-to-Wall Carpet So as Not to Have the Baby Tripping Over Them All the Time Goddammit. (He was addicted to Nintendo.) To bring attention to each marvel, he would stand before whoever happened to be in the room and, while grinning wildly, grip his hands together in triumph, over one shoulder and then the other, like the Cub Scout who won the Pinewood Derby. Sometimes, for modesty's sake, he would do it with his eyes closed and his head tilted. Did I do that?

Copyright © 2000 by David ("Dave") Eggers

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