Read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius Online

Authors: Dave Eggers

Tags: #Family, #Terminally ill parents, #Family & Relationships, #Personal Memoirs, #Death; Grief; Bereavement, #Biography & Autobiography, #Young men, #Editors; Journalists; Publishers

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Dave Eggers
Family, Terminally ill parents, Family & Relationships, Personal Memoirs, Death; Grief; Bereavement, Biography & Autobiography, Young men, Editors; Journalists; Publishers Review What to make of a book called A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: Based on a True Story ? For starters, there's a good bit of staggering genius before you even get to the true story, including a preface, a list of "Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of This Book," and a 20-page acknowledgements section complete with special mail-in offer, flow chart of the book's themes, and a lovely pen-and-ink drawing of a stapler (helpfully labeled "Here is a drawing of a stapler:"). But on to the true story. At the age of 22, Eggers became both an orphan and a "single mother" when his parents died within five months of one another of unrelated cancers. In the ensuing sibling division of labor, Dave is appointed unofficial guardian of his 8-year-old brother, Christopher. The two live together in semi-squalor, decaying food and sports equipment scattered about, while Eggers worries obsessively about child-welfare authorities, molesting babysitters, and his own health. His child-rearing strategy swings between making his brother's upbringing manically fun and performing bizarre developmental experiments on him. . After presenting a self-effacing set of "Rules and Suggestions for the Enjoyment of this Book" ("Actually, you might want to skip much of the middle, namely pages 209-301") and an extended, hilarious set of acknowledgments (which include an itemized account of his gross and net book advance), Eggers describes his parents' horrific deaths from cancer within a few weeks of each other during his senior year of college, and his decision to move with his eight year-old brother, Toph, from the suburbs of Chicago to Berkeley, near where his sister, Beth, lives. In California, he manages to care for Toph, work at various jobs, found Might, and even take a star turn on MTV's The Real World. While his is an amazing story, Eggers, now 29, mainly focuses on the ethics of the memoir and of his behavior--his desire to be loved because he is an orphan and admired for caring for his brother versus his fear that he is attempting to profit from his terrible experiences and that he is only sharing his pain in an attempt to dilute it.












Copyright © 2000, 2001 David (


) K. Eggers All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc.,

New York. Random House is owned
in toto
by an absolutely huge German company
called Bertelsmann A.G. which owns too many things to count or track. That said,
no matter how big such companies are, and how many things they own, or how
much money they have or make or control, their influence over the daily lives and
hearts of individuals, and thus, like 99 percent of what is done by official people
in cities like Washington, or Moscow, or Sao Paulo or Auckland, their effect on
the short, fraught lives of human beings who limp around and sleep and dream
of flying through bloodstreams, who love the smell of rubber cement and think
of space travel while having intercourse, is very very small, and so hardly
worth worrying about.

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number:


ISBN 0-375-72578-4

Manufactured in the United States of America

13579 10 8642

Height: 5


; Weight: 175; Eyes: blue; Hair: brown; Hands: chubbier than one
would expect; Allergies: only to dander; Place on the sexual-orientation scale,
with 1 being perfectly straight, and 10 being perfectly gay:

note: This is a work of fiction, only in that in many cases, the author could not
remember the exact words said by certain people, and exact descriptions of certain
things, so had to fill in gaps as best he could. Otherwise, all characters and incidents
and dialogue are real, are not products of the author

s imagination, because at the
time of this writing, the author had no imagination whatsoever for those sorts of
things, and could not conceive of
making up
a story or characters—it felt like driving
a car in a clown suit—especially when there was so much to say about his own, true,
sorry and inspirational story, the actual people that he has known, and of course the
many twists and turns of his own thrilling and complex mind. Any resemblance to
persons living or dead should be plainly apparent to them and those who know them,
especially if the author has been kind enough to have provided their real names and,
in some cases, their phone numbers. All events described herein actually happened,
though on occasion the author has taken certain, very small, liberties with
chronology, because that is his right as an American.

First of all:

I am tired. I am true of heart!

And also:

You are tired. You are true of heart!


1.  There is no overwhelming need to read the preface. Really. It exists mostly for the author, and those who, after finishing the rest of the book, have for some reason found themselves stuck with nothing else to read. If you have already read the preface, and wish you had not, we apologize. We should have told you sooner.

2.  There is also no overarching need to read the acknowledgments section. Many early readers of this book (see p. xlv) suggested its curtailment or removal, but they were defied. Still, it is not necessary to the plot in any major way, so, as with the preface, if you have already read the acknowledgments section, and wish you had not, again, we apologize. We should have said something.

3.  You can also skip the table of contents, if you

re short of time.

4.  Actually, many of you might want to skip much of the middle, namely pages 239—351, which concern the lives of people in their early twenties, and those lives are very difficult to make interesting, even when they seemed interesting to those living them at the time.

5.  Matter of fact, the first three or four chapters are all some of you might want to bother with. That gets you to page 123 or so, which is a nice length, a nice novella sort of length. Those first four chapters stick to one general subject, something manageable, which is more than what can be said for the book thereafter.

6. The book thereafter is kind of uneven.


For all the author

s bluster elsewhere, this is not, actually, a work of pure nonfiction. Many parts have been fictionalized in varying degrees, for various purposes.

Dialogue: This has of course been almost entirely reconstructed. The dialogue, though all essentially true—except that which is obviously not true, as when people break out of their narrative time-space continuum to cloyingly talk about the book itself—has been written from memory, and reflects both the author

s memory

s limitations and his imagination

s nudgings. All the individual words and sentences have been run through a conveyor, manufactured like so: 1) they are remembered; 2) they are written; 3) they are rewritten, to sound more accurate; 4) they are edited to fit within the narrative (though keeping with their essential truth); 5) they are rewritten again, to spare the author and the other characters the shame of sounding as inarticulate as they invariably do, or would, if their sentences, almost invariably begun with the word


—as in, for example,

Dude, she died

— were merely transcribed. It should be noted, however, that what

s remarkable is that the book

s most surreal dialogue, like that with the Latino teenagers and that with the beleaguered Jenna, is that which is most true to life.

Characters, and Their Characteristics: The author, though he was loath to do it, had to change a few names, and further disguise these name-changed characters. The primary example is the character named John, whose real-life name is not actually John, because John

s real-life counterpart justifiably did not want some of the dark portions of his life chronicled—though after reading the manuscript, he did not object to his deeds and words being spoken by another. Especially if the character were less a direct facsimile, and more of an amalgam. Which he is, in fact. Now, to make John work, and create a manageable narrative, his alteration had a sort of domino effect, making necessary a few other fictions. Among them: In real life, Meredith Weiss, who is real, does not know John all that well. The person who in real life acted as intermediary was not Meredith, but another person, whose presence would give away the connection, indeed, would give away poor John, and we could not have that. Thus, the author called Meredith:



So, do you mind doing [such and such] and saying [such and such], which in real life you did not actually do and say?

No, not at all.

So that was that. It should be noted, though, that Meredith

s main scene, in Chapter V, contains no fabrications. You can ask her. She lives in Southern California.

Otherwise, name changes are addressed in the body of the text. Moving on:

Locations and Time: First, there have been a few instances of location-switching. In Chapter V, there were two in particular. The conversation with Jenna, wherein the narrator tells her that Toph has fired a gun at his school and then disappeared, did not happen that night in that location, but instead happened in the backseat of a car, traveling from one party to the next, on New Year

s Eve, 1996. Later in the same chapter, the narrator, with the same Meredith mentioned above, encounters some youths on a San Francisco beach. This episode, though otherwise entirely factual, actually occurred in Los Angeles. Also, in this chapter, as in a few other chapters, there has been compression of time. It is, for the most part, referenced in the text, but we will reiterate here that in the latter third of the book, much happens in what seems to be a short period of time. Though most of the events
rendered did in fact happen within a very close span of time, a few did not. It should be noted, however, that the following chapters feature no time-compression: I, II, IV, VII.

A Note About Columbine: This book was written, and the dialogue it recounts was spoken, many years before the horrific events at that school and elsewhere. No levity is being attached to such things, intentionally or not.

Omissions: Some really great sex scenes were omitted, at the request of those who are now married or involved. Also removed was a fantastic scene—100 percent true—featuring most of the book

s primary characters, and a whale. Further, this edition reflects the omission of a number of sentences, paragraphs, and passages. Among them:

p. 38: As we lie on the bed, there are only a few long hours when Beth is asleep and Toph is asleep and my mother is asleep. I am awake for much of that time. I like the dark part of the night, after midnight and before four-thirty, when it

s hollow, when ceilings are harder and farther away. Then I can breathe, and can think while others are sleeping, in a way can stop time, can have it so— this has always been my dream—so that while everyone else is frozen, I can work busily about them, doing whatever it is that needs to be done, like the elves who make the shoes while the children sleep.

As I lie, drenched in the amber room, I wonder if I will nap in the morning. I think I can, believe I can sleep from maybe five until ten, before the nurses start coming in, adjusting and wiping, and so am content to stay up.

But this hideabed is killing me, the flimsiness of the mattress, the way that bar is digging into my back, bisecting my spine, grinding into it. Toph turning, kicking. And on the other side of the room, her uneven breathing.

p. 126: How do you handle this? Bill is up visiting, and he and Toph and I are driving over the Bay Bridge, and we are talking
about stockbrokering. We are talking about how, after Toph spent a weekend in Manhattan Beach with Bill and Bill

s two stockbroker roommates, Toph now wants to be a stockbroker, too. Bill is so excited about it all he can hardly stand it, wants to buy him a pair of suspenders, a starter-sized ticker...

We were thinking that, with Toph so good with numbers and all, that something like that would be a perfect career—

I almost drive the car off the bridge.

p. 197:
Why the scaffolding?

See, I like the scaffolding. I like the scaffolding as much as I like the building. Especially if that scaffolding is beautiful, in its way.

p. 207: Alcoholism and death make you omnivorous, both reckless & afraid, amoral, desperate.

Do you really believe that?

Sometimes. Sure. No. Yes.

p. 217: ... But see, in high school, I did a series of paintings of members of my family. The first was of Toph, from a photograph I had taken. Because for the assignment we were required to grid the picture out for accuracy, the painting, in tempera, was dead-on; it looked just like him. Not so with the rest of them, without aid of a picture under a grid. I did one of Bill, but his face came out too rigid, his eyes too dark, and his hair looked matted, Caesar-like, which was not at all the case in real life. The painting of Beth, from a photograph of her dressed for the prom, was off, too, all bloodred flesh under pink taffeta—I abandoned it right away. The one of my mom and dad, from an old slide, showed them on a boat together on a gray day. My mother takes up most of the frame, facing the camera, while my dad is over her shoulder, at the front of the boat, looking off to the side, unaware a picture is being taken, or feigning same. I screwed that one up, too—couldn

t get the likenesses. Any time one of them would see one of the paintings, they hated them. Bill was incensed when the one of him was shown at the public library.

Is that legal?

demanded of my father, the lawyer.

Can he even do that? I look like a monster!

And he was right. He did. So during my junior year, when Ricky Storr asked me to do a portrait of his father, I hesitated, because I had been so repeatedly frustrated by my limits, by my inability to render someone without distorting them, clumsily, horribly. But to Ricky I said yes, out of respect, thrilled in a way that he had bestowed the honor on me with the painting of a memorial for his father. So Ricky provided a formal black-and-white photograph, and I worked at it for weeks, with tiny brushes. When I was done, the likeness, to me, was unassailable. I told Ricky to come to the school

s art room, that it was ready. He finished his lunch early one day and came down. I turned it around, with a flourish, with great pride, ready for us both to glow in its presence.

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