Tuesday, March 27, 2007

No typical sob story

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius' title is immediately indicative of the best qualities of Dave Eggers' debut novel: it's poignant without wallowing in self-pity, intelligent without affecting pompous profundity, and funny without being too irreverent. "Funny" hardly seems appropriate, when the story is based on Eggers' own life, which has all the earmarks of a tragic soap opera: in his early twenties, his parents both die of cancer weeks apart, leaving him to almost single-handedly raise his 8-year-old brother Toph. But Eggers manages to narrate his quasi-autobiography in a sardonic, self-deprecating manner that simultaneously, improbably makes light of AND gives weight to the pathos of his tale.

Eggers' witty writing makes A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius not only readable, but enjoyable despite its "heavy" premise. Any parent or older sibling can easily relate to his misadventures in parenting his baby brother: the endless worrying (complete with wild imaginings of molestation and dismemberment), the (feeble) attempts at discipline, the you're-not-wearing-that face-offs, the guilt over maintaining a social life while the little one gets left at home with a babysitter (who may be a child molester/dismemberer). From time to time, Eggers breaks out of his first-person narration and uses another character to address himself and poke fun at his self-importance or chastise his resorting to cheap/pathetic tactics in raising Toph, dealing with women, and going about his work, publishing an indie magazine with a group of friends while supplementing his income with various temp jobs. In one chapter, Eggers auditions for the MTV show The Real World, and he launches into a Q&A format for several pages, only to end up confessing in the interview that the topics he just talked about were never really part of the audition, and he had just used the format to make it easier to talk about certain events from his childhood. In another part, Eggers is sitting in a hospital, talking to a friend who just attempted suicide. The friend cusses him out for using him as a plot device for his book, as some sort of lame symbolism for his wasted youth or a psychological stand-in for his dead father.

It's this unabashed self-consciousness that gives Eggers' work its quirky charm. At some points in the story, it becomes easy to perceive him as some punk capitalizing on his family's tragedy. But since he himself entertains the notion that he IS a punk capitalizing on his family's tragedy, even to the point of calling himself a monster, it's hard to scoff. One gets a sense of the pain Eggers went through as a young man, particularly over the loss of his beloved mother, and his struggle to come to terms with it.

Through all the smart and sometimes smart-alecky writing techniques Eggers employs, the only thing he fails to disguise is his very apparent, real devotion to Toph. Although he doesn't bother hiding some occasional resentment against his little ward, days when the boy seems a burden and a hindrance to the development of his own still-young life, Eggers obviously feels a mix of parental protectiveness and sibling fondness towards Toph. From their games of Frisbee, to their boys-will-be-boys rough-housing, to calling one another names, the brotherly affection is palpable, and unavoidably touching. And that, above all is what powers this work: not the heartbreak, or the genius-- although both are very much present-- but honest, ill-concealed, staggering love.


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