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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Mom watches it every night; it's the only thing she can watch without falling asleep, which she does a lot, dozing on and off during the day. But she does not sleep at night.

"Of course you sleep at night," I say.

"I don't," she says.

"Everyone sleeps at night," I say -- this is an issue with me -- "even if it doesn't feel like it. The night is way, way too long to stay awake the whole way through. I mean, there have been times when I was pretty sure I had stayed up all night, like when I was sure the vampires from Salem's Lot -- do you remember that one, with David Soul and everything? With the people impaled on the antlers? I was afraid to sleep, so I would stay up all night, watching that little portable TV on my stomach, the whole night, afraid to drift off, because I was sure they'd be waiting for just that moment, just when I fell asleep, to come and float up to my window, or down the hall, and bite me, all slow-like..."

She spits into her half-moon and looks at me.

"What the hell are you talking about?"

In the fireplace, the fish tank is still there, but the fish, four or five of those bug-eyed goldfish with elephantiasis, died weeks ago. The water, still lit from above by the purplish aquarium light, is gray with mold and fish feces, hazy like a shaken snow globe. I am wondering about something. I am wondering what the water would taste like. Like a nutritional shake? Like sewage? I think of asking my mother: What do you think that would taste like? But she will not find the question amusing. She will not answer.

"Would you check it?" she says, referring to her nose.

I let go of her nostrils. Nothing.

I watch the nose. She is still tan from the summer. Her skin is smooth, brown.

Then it comes, the blood, first in a tiny rivulet, followed by a thick eel, venturing out, slowly. I get a towel and dab it away.

"It's still coming," I say.

Her white blood cell count has been low. Her blood cannot clot properly, the doctor had said the last time this had happened, so, he said, we can have no bleeding. Any bleeding could be the end, he said. Yes, we said. We were not worried. There seemed to be precious few opportunities to draw blood, with her living, as she did, on the couch. I'll keep sharp objects out of proximity, I had joked to the doctor. The doctor did not chuckle. I wondered if he had heard me. I considered repeating it, but then figured that he had probably heard me but had not found it funny. But maybe he didn't hear me. I thought briefly, then, about supplementing the joke somehow, pushing it over the top, so to speak, with the second joke bringing the first one up and creating a sort of one-two punch. No more knife fights, I might say. No more knife throwing, I might say, heh heh. But this doctor does not joke much. Some of the nurses do. It is our job to joke with the doctors and nurses. It is our job to listen to the doctors, and after listening to the doctors, Beth usually asks the doctors specific questions -- How often will she have to take that? Can't we just add that to the mix in the IV? -- and then we sometimes add some levity with a witty aside. From books and television I know to do this. One should joke in the face of adversity; there is always humor, we are told. But in the last few weeks, we haven't found much. We have been looking for funny things, but have found very little.

"I can't get the game to work," says Toph, who has appeared from the basement. Christmas was a week ago, and we got him a bunch of new games for the Sega.


"I can't get the game to work."

"Is it turned on?"


"Is the cartridge plugged all the way in?"


"Turn it off and on again."

Copyright © 2000 by David ("Dave") Eggers

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