Reader’s Advisory: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

I should have loved A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. It was a best seller, finalist for the Pulitzer prize, it’s widely praised, and Yvonne loved it. It’s a memoir (which I found out after I finished reading it) about Eggers’ experience of losing his dad to lung cancer, losing his mother to stomach cancer a month after his dad, learning to take care of his younger brother, and general struggles of being a 20-something trying to find meaning in work and life and relationships whilst trying to balance it all.

It isn’t entirely written in the stream of consciousness, which is definitely the only reason I was able to read it. I’ve never been a fan of stream of consciousness writing, largely because I don’t connect with it, hate the flow, and don’t like how much concentration it requires. The latter half of the book is largely written in this way and had it been a book about any other scenario (e.g. On the Road by Jack Kerouac), I wouldn’t have picked it up. But as a 20-something who has lost a parent and is trying to balance responsibility and expectations and pleasures of a regular young adult and a person who is dealing with loss, I couldn’t stop reading.

“I don’t hold on to anything anymore. Pain comes at me and I take it, chew it for a few minutes, and spit it back out. It’s just not my thing anymore.”

I had tried to read this book in June, but found it difficult to get past the first two chapters, where he loses his parents. Several months later I started reading it again and it didn’t take me long to get through the rest. I’m not sure why I didn’t connect with this book as much as I “should” have, but at the same time, throughout it all, I completely understood him. I’ve tried to read Eggers’ books before and it never worked, and even if I had read this book two years ago, if I knew it was going to be written in stream of consciousness part of the time, if I had guessed how it would feel to grieve or to try to simultaneously be a guardian and a sibling to a brother 13-years my junior, it still might not have appealed to me as much as it does (I know I sound contradictory, but to be honest, I have no idea if I’m neutral to or in love with this book). Maybe that’s part of it though, that to me, his book isn’t a way for me to “expand my [emotional] horizons”; what he writes is largely how I feel. (Shouldn’t I outright love this book then?)

Neurotic worries about likely and unlikely scenarios, obsessive thoughts of our role in the world as humans and as Generation X in particular, passively thinking about romantic relationships but ultimately not putting effort into it because there are bigger things to worry about, tangential thoughts and anecdotes and daydreams, incorporating intense self-awareness into self-analysis and -criticisms, and so many other thoughts that run through a person’s head. I’m beginning to cross my fingers in hopes that my peers would connect to the flighty yet intense trains of thought in this book as much I do.

It was interesting, too, to imagine which parts of it my sister liked and what she would connect to differently (if she would) if she were to read it again now that we’re in the situation that we are. (Another Reader’s Advisory that I’m going to write is on the Bell Jar, and Yvonne wants to read that again too, now that she’s older and has a different perspective. I wonder how many books I would feel differently about now since I’ve grown up.) This excerpt reminded me of her:

“My sister dreams of them constantly. All the time, and in her dreams our parents are often cheerful, talking and walking and saying interesting things. … And thus I’m jealous, because I’d love to see them walking and talking again, even if it was fabricated in a dream. But I don’t dream of them. I have no idea why not, and how to remedy that problem.”

I dream of my dad often. For a long time, in the dreams we knew he had cancer and we were trying to cram in more time with him; we knew he was going to die within the week and we were going to #yolo it up. After a while, he started appearing like he used to, normal and happy and more of a background character. My mom and my siblings, we’re all happy when we hear that someone has dreamt of my dad; it’s in these little ways that I connect with this book, knowing that dreams of the dead and the associated happiness may be a normal part of bereavement and of being human.

In one segment of the book, Eggers has to go to his brother’s open house at school and he recounts part of his experiences as a play script. My favourite part is after a woman asks him how long ago it was that his mom died:

BROTHER thinks about how much he likes the “a few winters ago” line. It’s new. It sounds dramatic, vaguely poetic. For a while it was “last year”. Then it was “a year and a half ago”. Now, much to BROTHER’s relief, it’s “a few years ago.” “A few years ago” has a comfortable distance. The blood is dry, the scabs hardened, peeled. Early on it was different. Shortly before leaving Chicago, BROTHERs went to the barber to have TOPH’s hair cut, and BROTHER doesn’t remember how it came up, but when it did come up, BROTHER answered, “A few weeks ago.” At that the hair-cutting woman stopped, went through the antique saloon-style doors to the back room, and stayed there for a while. She came back red-eyed. BROTHER felt terrible. He is always feeling terrible, when the innocent, benign questions of unsuspecting strangers yield the bizarre answer he must provide. Like someone asking about the weather and being told of nuclear winter. But it does have its advantages. In this case, BROTHER got a free haircut.

Maybe you’ll connect with A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius in big themes or these little details, but regardless, it’s definitely worth a read.


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