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

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We are both distantly worried about the bleeding nose, my mother and I, but are for the time being working under the assumption that the nose will stop bleeding. While I hold her nose she holds the half-moon receptacle as it rests on the upper portion of her chest, under her chin.

Just then I have a great idea. I try to get her to talk funny, the way people talk when their nose is being held.

"Please?" I say.

"No," she says.


"Cut it out."


My mother's hands are veiny and strong. Her neck has veins. Her back has freckles. She used to do a trick where it looked like she would be pulling off her thumb, when in fact she was not. Do you know this trick? Part of one's right thumb is made to look like part of one's left hand, and then is slid up and down the index finger of the left finger -- attached, then detached. It's an unsettling trick, and more so when my mother used to do it, because she did it in a way where her hands sort of shook, vibrated, her neck's veins protruding and taut, her face gripped with the strain plausibly attendant to pulling off one's finger. As children, we watched with both glee and terror. We knew it was not real, we had seen it dozens of times, but its power was never diminished, because my mother's was a uniquely physical presence -- she was all skin and muscles. We would make her do the trick for our friends, who were also horrified and enthralled. But kids loved her. Everyone knew her from school -- she directed the plays in grade school, would take in kids who were going through divorces, knew and loved and was not shy about hugging any of them, especially the shy ones -- there was an effortless kind of understanding, an utter lack of doubt about what she was doing that put people at ease, so unlike some of the mothers, so brittle and unsure. Of course, if she didn't like someone, that kid knew it. Like Dean Baldwin, the beefy, dirty-blond boy up the block, who would stand in the street and, unprovoked, give her the finger as she drove by. "Bad kid," she would say, and she meant it -- she had an inner hardness that under no circumstances did you want to trifle with -- and would have him struck from her list until the second he might say sorry (Dean unfortunately did not), at which time he would have gotten a hug like anyone else. As strong as she was physically, most of the power was in her eyes, small and blue, and when she squinted, she would squint with a murderous intensity that meant, unmistakably, that, if pushed, she would deliver on her stare's implied threat, that to protect what she cared about, she would not stop, that she would run right over you. But she wore her strength casually, had a trusting carelessness with her flesh and muscles. She would cut herself while slicing vegetables, cut the living shit out of her finger, usually her thumb, and it would bleed everywhere, on the tomatoes, the cutting board, in the sink, while we watched at her waist, awed, scared she would die. But she would just grimace, wash the thumb clean under the tap, wrap the thumb in a paper towel and keep cutting, while the blood slowly soaked through the paper towel, crawling, as blood crawls, outward from the wound's wet center.

Beside the TV there are various pictures of us children, including one featuring me, Bill, and Beth, all under seven, in an orange dinghy, all expressions panicked. In the picture, we seem surrounded by water, for all anyone knows, miles from shore -- our expressions certainly indicate that. But of course we couldn't have been more than ten feet out, our mother standing over us, ankle-deep, in her brown one-piece with the white fringe, taking the picture. It is the picture we know best, the one we have seen every day, and its colors -- the blue of Lake Michigan, the orange of the dinghy, our tan skin and blond hair -- are the colors we associate with our childhoods. In the picture we are all holding the side of the little boat, wanting out, wanting our mother to lift us out, before the thing would sink or drift away.

Copyright © 2000 by David ("Dave") Eggers

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