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A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (D. Eggers)

2005-09-05 3 min read Books marco

Ah, a Talented New Writer™! An autobiography of one such genius! What privilege! What happenstance!

I have rarely had such a mixed impression of a book as with this particular one. Dave Eggers is an excellent writer: he has a wonderful voice, attention to the humanity that is happening around him. Still, I found myself deeply dissatisfied, and I had a hard time accepting why at first.

Reading on, things became clearer. The human material that weaves the book is staggering, indeed. The story, for the most part, tries to describe the author’s family. Ravaged by the sudden loss of both parents due to cancer, the young women and men have to find a life somewhere.

Dave has the strangest lot, deciding to keep living with his younger brother, Toph, barely a teenager. The two form this weird duo, a forming man and a child living together without supervision; roommates, for the most part, except where the older performs the ritual function of parent to the younger. Odd to look at, because the younger seems for the most part (again) the more adult of the two.

Add to the mix the crazy cities in which the family chooses to live, first Berkeley, then San Francisco; add the crazy startup mentality that finally gets the better part of Dave. That is a lot of material from which to create a story, and others have attempted to create a novel with much less than a subplot of this vita.

That part entirely works. Dave Eggers succeeds in telling this story in a compelling form, with clarity and precision, and lots of love for his family, especially for his little brother. Toph and Dave should become an iconic family, the proof that there is nothing about a family but mutual love and respect, which is what a lot of San Francisco became about after the two left it.

Where the novel does not succeed is where the author introspects. Never quite sure about his own sanity, Dave Eggers constantly throws his material out and goes back inside of him, in what looks like an attempt to replace the Raphaelites’s fondness of rugs and gems with the equivalent dream sequences and musings. Only that these dream sequences are entirely internal and are of no benefit to the reader or the story.

Part of the musings reminded me strongly of Burroughs, for they shared in a hallucinogenic nature that seemed entirely inappropriate for the remainder of the story, always on the lookout for easy redemption.

I guess the writer that abridges the oeuvre has a chance at tightening it, at making it more relevant, at focusing the story on what it is about: family and love.