For people older than Dave Eggers, “A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius” is,
understandably, a revelation. An irrepressible young mind reacting with rage, sadness, and above all, self-awareness, to tragedies both unique and mundane. For people younger (myself included), there’s nothing new here, just the constantly reevaluating stream of consciousness that attends modern American culture.
AHWOSG is a memoir, motivated primarily by the death of Dave’s parents by cancer and the forced responsibility of raising his young brother Toph. Eggers is not a great writer, he’s a detail-obsessed phenomenologist. His sentences teem with asides, em-dashes, expletives, and self-reference. As I write this review, I allow myself to be distracted by the episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 that I have playing on the TV. The best way to understand the book is to see that this unprofessional distraction is entirely appropriate.
Midway through the book, after Dave and Toph have fled their supportive and thus alienating hometown in suburban Chicago to start a new life in the San Francisco Bay area, Dave is nearly selected as a cast member for MTV’s “The Real World.” He doesn’t make the cut because the producers have already cast one white suburban male. Dave’s reaction — unsurprised bitterness — crystallizes the attitude so integral to his generation’s worldview and pervasive in 21st century America. Dave’s thoughts are not necessarily our thoughts: he is crippled by lack of confidence and overcompensates with ineffectual anger and subconscious self-sabotage, but the form of his thinking — manic, endlessly reflective, and blackly comedic — is utterly relatable. It’s the kind of thinking that watching “The Real World” at a young age inevitably imparts.
A reader disappointed by AHWOSG most likely imagines himself able to write approximately the same book. The anecdotes are chosen seemingly at random, rattled off in a wholly undisciplined style, and leave no particular impression of growth. A reader impressed by the book is dazzled by candor. Eggers is brave enough to reveal his detest for a suicidal friend, his crassness in pursuing sex with vague former acquaintances, and his utter failure at founding a snarky pop-culture magazine, to mention just a few of the book’s sordid episodes.
Ultimately, AHWOSG fails to deliver what it seems to promise: an insightful glimpse at triumph over obstacles few are burdened with. Instead, it is just light reading: a virtuosic page-turner for those accustomed to airport-newsstand fare, but just a notch above fluff for most of its target audience.