A Dissappointing Piece of Shocking Irritation

I had been told by multiple people to read Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The story of a young guy whose parents  die of cancer and leave him to raise his little brother sounded potentially both moving and entertaining. The book got rave reviews and was nominated for multiple awards. For a while I had been wanting to read it and just had trouble locating a copy and finding the time.

So when I started to read, I was surprised by my initial reaction. Usually if I’m going to like a book, it grabs me right away. In fact, that’s how I decide if I want to buy it: I read the first 10 or so pages standing there in the bookstore, and if I want to keep going, I’ll get it. This book seemed, for me, too off-beat at first glance, but I decided to keep going.

Written in a memoir-ish style, the work is a cross between a journal and a stream-of-consciousness, jumping around in time and spending lengthy passages rambling. It chronicles Dave’s journey with his brother, Toph, almost 15 years his junior. After their parents’ back-to-back deaths, the brothers move to California, Toph goes to school, Dave has issues with his girlfriend, he and some friends start up a magazine, he interviews for The Real World, they struggle to make ends meet, Dave tries to reconcile their parents’ deaths, etc., etc.

I never got into it. I made myself keep reading, but I never connected because Dave was not a likable character. He was fake and arrogant. He didn’t take the responsibility to get a job and adequately provide for his brother. He didn’t make sure Toph had clean clothes, ate good food or got to school on time. Instead, they lived in squalor and were frequently behind on rent. Dave didn’t get a job, even when his magazine quickly became a joke going nowhere (don’t get me started on the journalism standards and ethics pertaining to that). He didn’t really have much of a dating life, but what he had seemed to just be about the sex. Overall, he was kind of a useless jerk, going nowhere and not doing much where he was.

In Dave’s defense, he was in a tough situation. Only in his early twenties, he was raising an elementary schooler, and his two older siblings weren’t much help. I was shocked (and also irritated) by their aloof behavior and decision to handle the estate while Dave took care of Toph. Even when Beth, their sister, came over and saw their mess of a house, she didn’t offer much help. She had law school to worry about (what?!).

Also to Dave’s credit, he does a decent job raising Toph. The cutest moments come from their relationship. Dave has trouble balancing the roles of friend and disciplinarian, but when he and Toph are just having a good time, they really have fun together, whether that’s driving in the car, playing frisbee, making weird food or scaring the neighbors by pretending Toph is being beaten. But those instances don’t make up for the times Dave is irresponsible and irrational with his very young roommate.

And besides the content, the writing seemed too contrived. Commentary creeped in as though Eggers did and said things solely to include them in his book. He manipulated those around him and took advantage of the bad situations of others, including a suicidal friend. He was a habitual liar, which didn’t make for a credible memoir, and I found myself wondering how much of it really happened, how much was exaggerated and how much was made up.

Despite the claims of the title, I couldn’t enjoy much of the work because the narrator was so arrogant and selfish, and his ego got in the way even of efforts to be sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek. Next time an author proclaims his work’s greatness, even in jest, I’ll have to pass.

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