A stunning review of epic proportions

When it comes to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Simon & Schuster, $23), one could argue there really is no need for a book review. The author, Dave Eggers, reviews the book himself in the 40 pages preceding Chapter 1 that make up an extensive acknowledgements section, a preface that contains passages omitted from the book, and “Rules and Suggestions for the Enjoyment of This Book.” And despite all the bluster of the title, Eggers addresses the book’s shortcomings upfront, even going so far as to write that the reader might consider skipping pages 209 through 301. The first four chapters stick to a general subject, he explains, but “the book thereafter is kind of uneven.”

He’s right.

In the first four chapters, which are the “heartbreaking” portion of the book, Eggers chronicles the deaths of his parents, who both died of cancer within 32 days of each other in the early ’90s. Although the story is tragic, Eggers tells it with honesty and humor, saving it from the melodrama that could easily pervade such a memoir.

After his parents’ deaths, Eggers, who was 21 at the time, became the guardian of his 8-year-old brother, Toph. He, Toph, and their two siblings sold off their parent’s belongings, packed up their family’s home in Lake Forest, Ill., and moved to California. There Eggers and Toph grieved for their parents while adjusting to their new family situation, simultaneously dealing with newfound responsibility and enjoying newfound freedom.

The relationship between Eggers and Toph is one more of best friends living together than that of surrogate parent and child, though Eggers is acutely aware of his role. “I worry about exposing (Toph) to bands like Journey, the appreciation for which will surely bring him nothing but the opprobrium of his peers,” he writes. “Though he has often been resistant — children so seldom know what is good for them — I have taught him to appreciate all the groundbreaking musicmakers of our time — Big Country, Haircut One Hundred, Loverboy — and he is lucky for it. His brain is my laboratory, my depository.”

After the first four chapters, Eggers then shifts to the story of his double life as a guardian in his 20s — trying to get laid, to be sure, but without Toph being aware of such activities.

Pages 209 through 301 — the pages Eggers recommends skipping — include the tale of the rise of Might, a wickedly satirical and irreverent magazine Eggers helped found in San Francisco in 1993, Eggers’ failed quest to become a cast member of MTV’s The Real World, and a stunt in which Might fakes the death of Eight Is Enough child star Adam Rich.

Eggers, who went on to found and now edits the ‘zine-literary journal hybrid known as McSweeney’s, is known for his boundless creative intelligence and his dry (yet borderline precocious) wit, with a knack for marginalia.

That style and tone are pervasive in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, or AHWOSG, as Eggers refers to it. From the jacket blurbs (Rick Moody’s reads “This book does not need a blurb”) to the copyright page (which includes Eggers’ vital statistics, including height, weight, and placement on the sexual orientation scale).

That is why AHWOSG stands out from other heartbreaking works of staggering genius, also known as memoirs. Eggers’ ability to spoof himself and his situation makes his recounting of his life so compelling. While the story of the Eggers family is sad, there are many aspects that are pretty damn amusing. By not limiting the memoir to the drama, Eggers has relayed a more humanistic tale.

The fun doesn’t stop with the book. On Timothy McSweeney’s Internet Tendencies (the McSweeney’s Web site at www.mcsweeney.net), Eggers and company are running a contest asking people to post bogus reviews of AHWOSG on Amazon.com. The guidelines state that the review is eligible if it fits the following criteria: “The review rates the book with five stars. The review betrays the fact that the reviewer has not read the book. The reviewer has other things on his or her mind, or is confused.”

The contest has yielded a number of reviews on the site, such as the one by “Chris from Boston”: “This book chronicles the rise and fall of the Eggers of Milton, a poor, Irish immigrant family that cornered the egg trade in Boston, hence the family name ‘Eggers.’ It’s a heartbreaking tale of high cholesterol, prodigious feasts, and consummate self-loathing.”

But for all the hilarity, irreverence, and cleverness of AHWOSG, the underlying tone of the book is one of an attempt to overcome loss, which, after struggle, the orphans achieve — all the while trying to have a good time.

“We scrape through every day blindly,” Eggers writes, “always getting stumped on something we should know — how to plunge a toilet, how to boil corn, his Social Security number, the date of our father’s birthday — such that every day that he gets to school, that I get to work, and he goes to bed before eleven and doesn’t have blue, malnourished-looking rings around his eyes like he did for all those months last year — we never figured out why — feels like we’ve pulled off some fantastic trick — an escape from the jaws of death, the hiding of the Statue of Liberty.”

Contact Michelle Rubin at 816-218-6784 or michelle.rubin@pitch.com.

Categories: A&E