“Hey, have you read the Eggers book? You’ve got to read this book,” said all sorts of people, including a lot of people you would not expect to say this. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius has received the highest praise from just about every quarter of the literary mansion, from the marble pillared master bedroom to the straw matted servant’s quarters, and there is little here to add but a faint and final echo.
To offer modest cover for this belated review, Think would like to present the following in its defense: 1) This is Prague. We are poor. We have no credit cards with which to access Amazon.com. There is a natural, to be expected delay in the getting of new cultural products from the States – we are, in short, “out of touch,” and 2) The Vintage edition here under consideration was only published in February of 2001, and includes a long section called “Notes, Corrections, Clarifications, Apologies, Addenda” that did not appear in the first edition published by Simon and Schuster in that annus normalus, 2000.
So that’s why we can review this book so late and feel just fine about it. And the fact that I just read it is why this review feels so self-conscious and hopelessly conversational. That’s how Eggers writes, and it is infectious. If you like his journal McSweeney’s, then chances are you are already very familiar with the Eggers voice and have already read the book, unless of course you hate his super smart, beyond ironic and endlessly self-reflexive style and refuse to read the book because you can’t imagine 450 pages of it.
Or maybe you like the style in snippets, but still can’t imagine 450 pages of it. I was in this last group. I was a cynic and blocked out the numerous recommendations to read this book from people I know and love. A memoir? About Berkeley? By some sort of David Foster Wallace knock-off trying to update Tristam Shandy? No thanks. Life is short. I’d rather pay 800 crowns to see Tom Jones play the Paegus Arena. Next.
Then I threw a sideways glance at a passage and slowly sunk into the narrative like a nodding junkie into a velvet beanbag. People get ready: this book reads like warm hand-churned butter. It just melts around your brain; it’s funny, gripping, true, great. That every single other reviewer in the English language has said more or less the same thing in more or less the same words doesn’t make it any less so.
Dave Eggers’ story of losing his parents and raising his little brother has no business coming close to being a Great American Novel, but does, is. Eggers describes his mom’s tumor in terms of urban cavier sprawl. Eggers tells funny stories about posers in San Francisco clubs that make you laugh out loud on the can. Eggers is poignant about death and love without being cheesy.
Eggers describes his inner and outer worlds from such heights of self-knowledge that you can’t help but doubt yourself. Eggers does all this and more. Eggers make you wish you were Eggers, even though the tragedy he describes is one that nobody, certainly not Eggers, would wish upon anybody, but by making into art, has given to everybody, for which everybody is glad and thankful.