It’s the end of April and I hope you’re all still enjoying the last remnants of Easter chocolate (I’ve already eaten mine…boo). As it is the last Friday of the month, it’s time for another recommendation. This month I’m talking about one of my all time favourite books, Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (AHWSG).
Dave Eggers is well known as a modern voice and proponent of literature in its purest form. His publishing house and literary journal McSweeney’s is a recognised outlet for new voices and writers. He was also (importantly for me) immortalised on the wall of Rory Gilmore’s dorm room:
I first came across AHWSG in my school library when I was about 15. I loved the title, its ego and cheekiness appealing to me. However, AHWSG is a massive book and I was a bit overwhelmed and the librarian was unimpressed with how late the book was, so I gave up about four chapters in. Several years later in my early 20s, I picked it up again. The fact that I’d left it unfinished had always nagged at me, as I’d really enjoyed what I’d read and I was determined to give it another go. The second time there were no problems: I whizzed through it, utterly captivated. AHWSG appeared on my Top 10 Tuesday list a few weeks back as one of the most unique books I’ve ever read and I stand by this assertion.
AHWSG‘s plot is sort of hard to explain. It’s a kind of fictionalised memoir, with Eggers mostly recounting the truth, but knowingly and wilfully adapting and adding to his stories, to make them more readable, more dramatic or to fit better within his narrative. His choice to expose this fact (later editions of the book are prefaced with a list titled ‘Mistakes we knew we were making’) is an interesting and bold one. Readers are usually subconsciously aware that memoirs/autobiographies are ‘edited’ due to the vulnerability and unreliability of human memory, but I think it’s pretty rare to lay that out for the reader so openly. There are occasions where characters break the fourth wall and I feel that the reader’s awareness of the fictionalised aspects of the book makes you more questioning and more critical as a reader.
Essentially, AHWSG is about Dave and his family. He goes through the appalling trauma of losing both parents within weeks of each other and he and his siblings are left picking up the pieces of their family and figuring out how to move forward. There’s almost no time for grief, as the oldest three (including Dave) must provide and care for their youngest brother Toph, who is still a child (I think he’s about 8 at the start of the book). Responsibility for Toph is split between them, with the whole family moving to California and Dave being left to handle much of the day to day stuff for Toph. What’s striking about the novel is Dave’s internal conflict between being a very young man himself, desperate to go out and live irresponsibly and freely, while also loving his little brother very much and wanting to keep him happy and safe. He is still processing his own grief and loss along with figuring out who he is and how his life is going to go now.
I read AHWSG right out of university. I’d been reading a lot of amazing books and been exposed to some incredible, ground-breaking writing styles and narratives. And yet, AHWSG was totally unlike anything else I’d ever read. Eggers’ style was brand new to me and the way he combined memoir and story-telling, along with existential riffs on life blew my mind. Seriously, guys. I feel like it’s impossible to explain how this book opened doors for me in terms of what I read and what I thought writing needed to be.
It was also a good book to read while I was still so young and fresh to the ‘real world’. Dave has no real idea of what he’s doing, or how to be an adult or what he wants, even. He drifts from job to job, apartment to apartment never quite settling. It was immensely comforting to be reading about someone who didn’t have it figured out – at all, really. I felt less alone, less frustrated and like it would all be OK somehow. Despite opening with just about the saddest things that could happen, AHWSG never feels maudlin or depressing; instead I found it to be oddly hopeful and forward looking. Life goes on regardless and we have to see what else is out there for us.
AHWSG won’t be to everyone’s tastes; its meandering narrative and various tangents may be frustrating to some. But I can say absolutely and truthfully that I loved it. I loved it so much that I’m actually sort of scared to read it again, for fear some of it’s magic will have disappeared somehow. Go out and read it, discover a great writer and an unusual book that stays with you, in the nicest way possible.