Summary and book reviews of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

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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Book Summary

'When you read his extraordinary memoir you don't laugh, then cry, then laugh again; you somehow experience these emotions all at once.'

"Well, this was when Bill was sighing a lot. He had decided that after our parents died he just didn't want any more fighting between what was left of us. He was twenty-four, Beth was twenty-three, I was twenty-one, Toph was eight, and all of us were so tried already, from that winter. So when something would come up, any little thing, some bill to pay or decision to make, he would just sigh, his eyes tired, his mouth in a sorry kind of smile.

But Beth and I...Jesus, we were fighting with everyone, anyone, each other, with strangers at bars, anywhere -- we were angry people wanting to exact revenge. We came to California and we wanted everything, would take what was ours, anything within reach. And I decided that little Toph and I, he with his backward hat and long hair, living together in our little house in Berkeley, would be world-destroyers. We inherited each other and, we felt, a responsibility to reinvent everything, to scoff and re-create and drive fast while singing loudly and pounding the windows. It was a hopeless sort of exhilaration, a kind of arrogance born of fatalism, I guess, of the feeling that if you could lose a couple of parents in a month, then basically anything could happen, at any time -- all bullets bear your name, all cars are there to crush you, any balcony could give way; more disaster seemed only logical. 

And then, as in Dorothy's dream, all these people I grew up with were there, too, some of them orphans also, most but not all of us believing that what we had been given was extraordinary, that it was time to tear or break down, ruin, remake, take and devour. This was San Francisco, you know, and everyone had some dumb idea -- I mean, wicca? -- and no one there would tell you yours was doomed. Thus the public nudity, and this ridiculous magazine, and the Real World tryout, all this need, most of it disguised by sneering, but all driven by a hyper-awareness of this window, I guess, a few years when your muscles are taut, coiled up and vibrating. But what to do with the energy? I mean, when we drive, Toph and I, and we drive past people, standing on top of all these hills, part of me wants to stop the car and turn up the radio and have us all dance in formation, and part of me wants to run them all over."

Chapter One, Part One

Through the small tall bathroom window the December yard is gray and scratchy, the trees calligraphic. Exhaust from the dryer billows clumsily out from the house and up, breaking apart while tumbling into the white sky.

The house is a factory.

I put my pants back on and go back to my mother. I walk down the hall, past the laundry room, and into the family room. I close the door behind me, muffling the rumbling of the small shoes in the dryer, Toph's.

"Where were you?" my mother says.

"In the bathroom," I say.

"Hmph," she says.

"What?"

"For fifteen minutes?"

"It wasn't that long."

"It was longer. Was something broken?"

"No."

"Did you fall in?"

"No."

"Were you playing with yourself?"

"I was cutting my hair."

"You were contemplating your navel."

"Right. Whatever."

"Did you clean up?"

"Yeah."

I had not cleaned up, had actually left hair everywhere, twisted brown doodles drawn in the ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Book

The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading and discussion of Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. We hope that they will provide you with a variety of ways of thinking and talking about this extraordinary and unique book.

Dave Eggers was only twenty-one when his parents died of cancer within weeks of each other. In the aftermath of their deaths, Eggers became the acting parent of his eight-year-old brother, Toph. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is the story of their life together, with Dave's efforts at housekeeping, cooking, and getting Toph to school on time comically at odds with his desire to spend time ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

The New York Times - Michiko Kakutani

Mr. Eggers demonstrates in this book that he can pretty much write about anything. He can turn a Frisbee game with his brother into an existential meditation on life. He can convey the wild, caffeinated joy he feels after seeing a friend wake up from a coma. And he can turn his efforts to scatter his mother's ashes in Lake Michigan into a story that's both a lyrical tribute to her passing and a crude, slapstick account of his ineptitude as a mourner, lugging about a canister of ashes that reminds him, creepily, of the Ark of the Covenant in the Spielberg movie... A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius may start off sounding like one of those coy, solipsistic exercises that put everything in little ironic quote marks, but it quickly becomes a virtuosic piece of writing, a big, daring, manic-depressive stew of book that noisily announces the debut of a talented -- yes, staggeringly talented new writer.

The New York Times Book Review - Sara Mosle

Eggers's book, which goes a surprisingly long way toward delivering on its self-satirizing, hyperbolic title, is a profoundly moving, occasionally angry and often hilarious account...A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is, finally, a book of finite jest, which is why it succeeds so brilliantly.

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.

Library Journal

In the end one is left with a surprisingly moving tale of family bonding and resilience as well as the nagging suspicion that maybe he made the whole thing up. In any case, as compared with the spate of recent reminiscences by earnest youngsters, Eggers delivers a worthwhile story told in perfect pitch to the material.

Author Blurb David Remnick
Eggers is an original new voice, the real thing. When you read his extraordinary memoir you don't laugh, then cry, then laugh again; you somehow experience these emotions all at once -- and powerfully.

Author Blurb David Sedaris
The force and energy of this book could power a train.

Author Blurb Lawrence Weschler
Truly splendid. The key word in the title, of course, is "Staggering" -- and not just because of the subliminal pun off "Eggers." Rather, Eggers is some kind of Staggering Genius the way Pavarotti is a Singing one. When Kierkegaard got in this deep -- this endlessly self-ironizingly, loopily down-spiralingly deep -- he had to rely on God to save him. But Eggers somehow manages to save himself -- all his endlessly knowing self-undercutting somehow managing to cut clean through to something more bottomlessly profound: a simple wonder; a knowing wonder, to be sure, but no less abiding a Wonder for all that.

Reader Reviews

Candice

I Love Memoirs
I may be a bit biased because I am a fan of the "memoir movement".I realize not everyone is into this kind of thing and that's cool. I also think that memoirs are the truest form of literary art due to the fact that the author is not going through ...   Read More

Lizzayyyyy

hilarious, awesome read. touching.

Royal J. Cumings

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is indeed a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Many of this generation who were forced to grow up too quickly will find Mr. Eggers' stew of prose to be a kindred to their own. This is one of the best ...   Read More

Brianne

A Hearbreaking Work is one of the most powerrful works of literature i have ever read. Eggers imagination and vivid storytelling skills are incredible. The fact that he follows his train of thought with such confidence is what makes this book a ...   Read More

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