Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #20: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers


In the sake of being upfront with you, I feel it necessary to point out that I only knew of this novel by means of a tumultuous cock-tease of a friendship masquerading as something with the potential of becoming something more. CHB is what I call her now, short for Crazy Hipster Bitch, all valid descriptors of a girl who, around the time I finally and triumphantly cut her out of my life, was already on her way to such better things as academic probation at community college. It was months before I fully realized the clinical insanity I’d given myself over to in my interactions with her, yet she went on to become the first person I had ever truly hated. Since then, a couple others have also earned that dubious honor, but she remains at the head of that list.

CHB was the sort who was incapable of even nailing down a single favorite, be it book, movie, etc. Naturally, then, it came as no surprise that her favorite book changed on what seemed like a daily basis. Two books, though, were brought up with more frequency than all the rest:David Copperfield and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the latter being such a mouthful that I was prone to having a slip of the mind and getting it confused with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Before I decided I was done with her, I purchased a copy ofDavid Copperfield I found at the local Goodwill and began reading it right away, feeling that by doing so I’d gain a greater understanding of her as a person. People’s favorites often speak to their character on a deeper level than, say, any number of messages on OkCupid, often broken into two parts on account of us regularly going over the character limit, could.

This, however, was during the time when I started a lot yet finished very little, so my momentum trailed off about halfway through and never picked back up. To this day, David Copperfield sits on my shelf unfinished for no reason other than I didn’t have the necessary motivation to push through to the end. Based on what I did read, it has all the makings of a personal favorite, which is why even I was feeling a bit baffled it’d sat untouched ever since. Having now completed A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, though, I wager it might be better left alone. Because, for the first 109 pages, I felt much the same about it as I did about David Copperfield. Eggers, like others I admire such as Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner, forwent conventions in favor of presenting his (mostly true) story in the manner of stream-of-consciousness prose that, for those 109 pages, lends it an extra level of sincerity and authenticity.

Except what came across so honest starts to feel contrived as you move further in and Eggers moves away from the “heartbreaking” (i.e., the death of his parents) and towards the “staggering genius” (i.e., the insipid, pretentious, and self-aware rambling that follows). I found myself wishing I’d taken the advice offered by Eggers himself in the section titled “rules and suggestions for enjoyment of this book.”

5. Matter of fact, the first three or four chapters are all some of you might want to bother with. That gets you to page 109 or so, which is a nice length, a nice novella sort of length. Those first four chapters stick to one general subject, something manageable, which is more than what can be said for the book thereafter.

6. The book thereafter is kind of uneven.

Uneven doesn’t even begin to describe it, as the highlights are far outshined by the lowlights. Since he has increasingly less to work with in the way of subject matter, that stream-of-consciousness style of his grates more than it benefits the monotonous story he’s trying to tell, and matters are only made worse by the moments in which Eggers takes the meta route of having his characters, whether it be his younger bother Toph or an interviewer for The Real World, gain a sort of omniscience that allows them to turn a critical eye on everything from Eggers’ actions to the writing of the book itself. In these sections, which go on for pages upon pages, Eggers engages in self-important discussion with himself, losing sight of the emotional core of the story (i.e., the death of his parents and how that effects him, Toph, and his older sister Beth).

Perhaps Eggers realized things needed sprucing up in some sense, seeing as one can only be so intrigued by a person who spends over half the book simultaneously running a magazine and hating the whole process. Thus, he went about flaunting his “staggering genius” in order to distract readers from just how insufferable he was becoming, succeeding only in becoming more irksome in the process. Instead, he should’ve focused upon those few moments that don’t ring hollow, such as many of the ones which occur during his trip back home. For instance, there’s a scene in which he goes to dispose of his mother’s ashes in the sea and ends up channeling Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski, which is to say he fails in a tragic, yet also somewhat comic, fashion. But those get lost amid all the rambling, directionless prose. In addition,he would rather speed off on a tangent than stay in the moment, which results in countless scenes not having nearly as much impact as they would otherwise.

By comparison, the opening chapters, despite hopping around in time, have an undeniable sense of immediacy and focus, which is part of why they hit home for me to such a degree. That and, as I already mentioned, they felt the most real. They were raw, yes, but all the more beautiful for it. This was a man letting out all those pent up emotions in the only way he knew how, uninhibited by all things, namely literary conventions. I felt like I was actually reading a memoir or, rather, a diary, whereas everything else felt gussied up and fake, like a teenage girl putting on airs and trying to pass for an adult when she still has the body of a young boy and mind of, well, a young girl. Though at times she might say something “heartbreaking” or “genius,” and though you might almost be tricked into loving her for it, her words will mostly want to make you grab a hold of her and tell her to stop because she’s fooling no one. Unfortunately, you can’t do that with a book. All you can do is skim through all the side-stories that have been tacked on until you return to the meat of the story, a process which took longer and longer as the story wore on and Eggers disappeared further and further up into his own head and up his own arse.

To be fair, I should’ve seen it coming, what with there being 39 pages of introductory material prior to the start of the story proper, material which includes things ranging from an “incomplete guide to symbols and metaphors” to the aforementioned set of “rules and suggestions for enjoyment of this book.” Did I mention that those “rules and suggestions” are nothing but Eggers saying not to read this and that, suggesting that even he knows it’s a bit much, yet doing nothing about it despite protestations from his “early readers.”

2. There is also no overarching need to read the acknowledgements section. Many early readers of this book (see p. xxxix) suggested its curtailment or removal, but they were defied. Still, it is not necessary to the plot in any major way, so, as with the preface, if you have already read the acknowledgements section, and wish you had not, again, we apologize. We should have said something.

I remember scanning all this prior to diving into the actual story and finding it cute, in its own way. Oh, how opinions change. No differently than CHB’s idiosyncrasies went from charming me deaf, blind, and dumb to driving me to madness, so too did Eggers’. So if you read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, proceed with immense caution, and pay closer attention to the signs, the cracks in the facade, than I did. Maybe do as Eggers says and stop at page 109. Better you be careful and stop early than read on and have what comes next mar all that came before.

That all being said, if Eggers’ tale is one you can personally relate to, as I know CHB could, given her mother died when she was young, then you might get better mileage from the book than others. Still, I advise you to be careful; A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius really is a divisive book, and not simply because of its title.

Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.

5 thoughts on “Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #20: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

  1. A really entertaining review. David Copperfield didn’t do anything for me either. I read What is the What by Eggers a few years ago and found it just missing something in the story telling.

  2. It was a little difficult to enjoy the review what with all the blatany misogyny (slap that whore if she gets to talky…it’s funny when they start thinking they’re people, anyway).

    • While I’ll readily admit it was in somewhat poor taste, I didn’t mean for it to be taken at all literally. I am the sort of guy who could never bring himself to inflict any sort of physical harm on a girl (unless it were, in say, self defense) and who lists making a girl (or young child) cry as the thing that makes me feel the worst. The “blatant misogyny” you speak of in that sentence had absolutely nothing to do with my personal beliefs. It was my weak attempt at putting into words what parts of the book felt like to me, which is someone (i.e., a prostitute) trying to make something that’s, at its heart, so base and disingenuous (i.e., sex with a prostitute) into something altogether different and more glamorous and meaningful. In other words, it’s like a prostitute trying to fool you into thinking the two of you have something special, that this is some sort of transcendental experience, when really it’s just sex for hire. Much of Eggers’ writing is shallow and pretentious, but he himself seems to be perhaps the biggest believer in his own “staggering genius,” to use his own phrasing from the title, and appears intent upon convincing readers that it’s real by going so far as to do things such as insert literary symbols into this work of “non-fiction.” And at the same time, it’s like he’s trying to draw attention away from how fake it all is, for example by telling people how pointless the introductory material is. So, coming back around to my original analogy, Eggers is like a cheap prostitute who tries to pass himself off as a high-end call girl, the sort who, like Sasha Grey’s character in The Girlfriend Experience, can not only satisfy you physically, but emotionally as well. Except, time passes and you realize it’s all an act, and an unconvincing one at that, and you just wish he would shut up and get to focusing on why you’re there in the first place. In my analogy, that’s sex, and in real life it’s the story I wanted him to get back to, his tangential ramblings stopping it from having any sort of natural flow. In short, I think the analogy works to a certain extent, but I should’ve explained myself better, and I shouldn’t have brought physical violence into the equation. If you like, replace the desire to slap her with the simple desire to have her stop talking and do what she had you pay her for, which is sex.

      And that’s all I’ll say on that subject because I really have to get to work.

    • And the offending section has been reworked with an entirely new, and hopefully much less problematic, analogy.

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