A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers


It’s not easy to say anything about a book whose writer is as self-aware as Dave Eggers. Eggers knows exactly what he created (and how excellent a work he created), and he says as much right at the beginning of this novel/memoir. For instance, in his foreword he claims that the first couple of chapters are basically perfect, while the rest is of a somewhat uneven quality. And this is exactly so, even though the uneven quality produced by Dave Eggers is such that almost anyone would be glad to write so unevenly in peak form.

Generally I’m not a great fan of forewords written by writers about their own works, because it seems to me that writers either tend to say lots of silly things about their work, or they tend to speak about it so self-critically that they make me doubt whether I really want to read their book after all.

Dave Eggers is an exception, though. Perhaps because he’s extremely smart, and what he says about his book is indeed right. Or perhaps because Eggers is the child of the postmodern-ironic age, and he knows that it’s almost impossible to create fiction without self-reflection – but also knows that all the usual postmodern self-reflection doesn’t mean anything anymore.

Sure, we all know it already – everything had already been written, every emotion had already been felt, every experience had already been experienced by countless others, and reflecting on this is a very postmodern thing – but it’s somewhat boring. Or more precisely: it can be boring when there’s nothing else besides the reflection. Because even though we know that our emotions and experiences are usually rather ordinary, they are still ours, and it would be stupid to completely hide behind irony and cancel everything we live through just because someone else already felt, already experienced the same.

This is why it’s amazing that Eggers went beyond the usual (let’s say: old-fashioned) postmodern. The way he writes, the way he reflects on himself, the way he talks out of the book – it’s all deeply and fascinatingly ironic (what else could it be around the year 2000), but the irony is not there just for irony’s sake – it means something (and I like it when something means something).

For Eggers, it seems to me, irony and the often very sick, very dark, desperately funny humor are not there because that’s the postmodern way to write and to experience – they are there because using these devices might be the best way for him to endure all kinds of horrors. Because what the novel is about is often horrible and almost insupportable.

One of the main story-lines is about how Dave Eggers, being in his early twenties, deals with the situation that both his parents die within a few weeks’ time from each other, and he inherits the task – still half a child himself – to raise his eight-year old brother. Their story is enough to shatter a heart – partly because of the obvious reasons, and partly because the way Eggers plays the role of a parent, and the way his brother adopts the role of a child being raised by another child is so beautiful and so chaotically zen that it almost makes me cry.

The other main theme is how, parallel to playing a parent, Eggers tries to be an average, that is, a completely out of this world, idealistic young guy in his twenties, someone who rushes head-first into experiences and never considers anything twice. And true, this story-line is somewhat uneven and less than perfectly written – but it’s strong, real, and it’s full of life.

Yes, this is a heartbreaking work, and not the ironic-distant heartbreaking kind, but the truly heartbreaking kind, even if it’s full of irony. And as regards the reference to a genius in the title – I’d just say that Eggers is mind-blowingly talented, extremely funny, and he writes the way I admire the most: without any apparent effort, he makes me believe, anytime, about anything that: I am there.