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A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius    by Dave Eggers order for
Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
by Dave Eggers
Order:  USA  Can
Vintage, 2001 (2000)
Hardcover, Softcover

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

AHeartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a mix of memoir and fiction, in which the author shares with the reader his own perspective on a very dramatic period of his life. It comes across as a hyperactive stream of consciousness with the energy and occasional fury of river rapids, so that the reader occasionally wonders along with the author's dying mother 'What the hell are you talking about?'

Eggers shares the physical details of that slow death with candour, not stinting on the body fluids. He reveals two twenty-something young people barely coping with a mother's deterioration and the care of a seven year old brother as they wait 'for everything to finally stop working - the organs and systems, one by one, throwing up their hands - The jig is up, says the endocrine; I did what I could, says the stomach, or what's left of it; We'll get em next time, adds the heart, with a friendly punch to the shoulder.'

The author's father was an alcoholic who died unexpectedly of cancer a few months earlier and people who know the family's situation become a target for Egger's anger - 'I have plans for them, the nosy, the inquisitive, the pitying, have developed elaborate fantasies for those who would see us as grotesque, pathetic, our situation gossip fodder' - but beneath that anger and defensive humor there is affection and pain. There are many such flights of fancy spread through the book, as when the author and his sister Beth plan to break their mother out of hospital or later when he imagines his brother's student babysitter to be a serial killer.

After the death and service comes an exuberant description of the car journey West, when Egger takes his little brother Toph to a complete change of scene in California; 'the two of us slingshotted from the back side of the moon, greedily cartwheeling toward everything we are owed.' They arrive and create their own place and rather strange lifestyle; a little like Peter Pan living with one of the Lost Boys. 'We have been trying to eat in the kitchen, but since we got the Ping-Pong net, it's been more difficult.' There are wonderful descriptions of the author's attempts to fit his round peg into a square parental role - I especially enjoyed his agonizing from the Little League sidelines.

Late in the story Eggers returns to Chicago with a list of unfinished business. Almost by accident he obtains a box with his mother's 'cremains', which he throws into Lake Michigan on her birthday ... 'I can't decide if what I am doing is beautiful and noble and right, or small and disgusting.' His ongoing sharing of such conflicts drives the book forward, though I must say that I prefer his happier view of a reunion with old school friends - 'what I really want is to just swim around in a warm baby pool of these friends, jump in their dry leaf pile'.

This novel gives a glimpse into the psyche of a grieving young man saddled with early responsibility and protective towards a vulnerable child - or perhaps it is more of a wide open window than a glimpse. Overall, I appreciated the book's irony and honesty about the mechanics of death, and shared its sorrow for the loss of youth, which seemed to me to be the main message. Heartbreaking, occasionally; Staggering, often; Genius, maybe.

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