This candid memoir tells the story of Eggers’ life after his parents died of cancer when Dave, the third of four children, was college-age, but somehow became the caretaker for his eight-year-old brother, Toph. All of the siblings moved from Illinois to the San Francisco area immediately after their parents’ deaths, and although Beth was supposed to be the live-in surrogate parent, she continued to pursue her education and career, while Dave and Toph set up a sort of “bachelor pad” where they both attempt to grow up together.
Eggers’ style is very accessible and conversational for the most part, but at times he becomes an unreliable narrator and puts his own thoughts and anxieties into other character’s mouths, working through problems and issues by arguing with himself. Toph often appears to be wiser than his much-older brother, and Dave struggles to reconcile his parental persona, assumed at school functions, with his desire to be a twenty-something young man who wants to date and find a relationship with a young woman without feeling so desperately guilty. His deep and protective love of Toph shines through with heartbreaking vulnerability.
Along with his personal story, this sometimes fictionalized autobiography is also a chronicle of Generation X in California, at a time when the dot.com bubble was beginning, Bill Clinton was president, and all the cool people were there. Eggers and his friends were trying to start a magazine in the same abandoned building as the group starting Wired magazine, and at one point Dave auditioned for a role in a brand-new phenomenon called “reality TV.” His turbulent narration shows a young man who works relentlessly to be part of the intellectual, effortlessly hip crowd while simultaneously exposing them as shallow, privileged poseurs, and all the time, in the back of his mind, he is tortured by the thought that he is neglecting Toph, who will surely die at the hands of an incompetent or even sadistic babysitter.
Both a portrait of an artist and of an era, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is on most of the “100 Books Everyone Should Read” lists, probably those compiled by Gen X folks. For all of his swagger, Eggers will truly break your heart, and although his favorite word starts with an “f,” his prose is filled with a raw beauty that causes the reader to empathize with this young man trying to play the hand that life has dealt him with integrity, all the while desperately aware of his own weaknesses and flaws.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.