A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers – A Book Review

As the title would suggest, this is a work of postmodernism at its purest.  However, that’s not necessarily always a good thing.  Dave Eggers presents a book that is a series of contradictions.  As the title sarcastically notifies, it is sometimes heartbreaking, and it is also sometimes the work of genius.  Consequently, the title also reeks of narcissism and “gimmick,” to which it is equally guilty.

To summarize, Eggers details the death of his parents and then his struggle to raise his much younger brother while attempting to start and maintain a magazine and land a role on The Real World.  But the book is so much more than that.  While labeled fiction, he makes no bones about the fact it is almost entirely autobiographical.

When Eggers is being authentic, the book is beautiful.  When he’s writing from the heart, blending his neurosis and experimental metacognition with events in an ingenuous manner, the book really is a joy to read.  There are sincere moments of hilarity, love, sadness, tension, and drama.  Eggers also readily exposes flaws in his character and without pause-flaws we all have but may not reveal so candidly to the world.  Unfortunately, my copy has 437 pages, and I’d say only about 230 of those are written in such sincere fashion.

The rest of the book is pure gimmick, and Eggers makes a point to admit this in a long-winded and agitating series of prefaces.  These sections of the book really irritated me due to their completely self-absorbed shtick and superfluous nature.  Eggers is pushing the envelope, and I can appreciate that, but in the instances it doesn’t work, it DOESN’T work.  We’re all familiar with the saying, “You’re trying too hard.”  Eggers falls victim to this temptation for much of the book.

There’s nothing wrong with presenting yourself egocentrically, for the majority of us are self-centered.  I admire Eggers for frankly and humorously divulging his many personality quirks.  I respect the blunt style chronicling his family’s struggles.  And when it worked, I learned a great deal about metacognition and how to execute it well.  Unfortunately, I also discovered the failings of “trying too hard” and giving into the lures of gimmick.