A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius Book Review

We have our classics, and today, people debate about what should be regarded as a modern classic, as in something that should be remembered that came out recently. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers is one such book that some people have bestowed that title on. It’s a memoir that details the author’s time raising his little brother after their parents’ deaths. Its innovative ways definitely shook up that genre, but it got on my nerves at times.

Published in 2000, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is Eggers’s extraordinary memoir. At age 21, both of his parents died within five weeks of each other, and he became the legal guardian of his 8-year-old brother Toph. Along with their older siblings, Dave and Toph move to California, and they get an apartment. This is the story of how he raised his brother and of the love that held his family together.

Why do people consider it a modern classic? Well, it’s all in the writing style. It contains a stream-of-consciousness type, in which Eggers rambles on a variety of topics and seamlessly switches from one to another. I don’t know if another book contains this kind of style prior, but I’m certain that there have been novels that have followed suit. In a way, it’s the book version of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Some readers may find this refreshing from other memoirs, while others might get irritated by the digressions. Since the situation that he was in happened so fast, it makes sense that his thoughts could be scattered to display how confused he was. Even though I understood why, I started to become annoyed after a few too many ramblings.

I was also prepared for some sadness with this book. It’s heartbreaking to know that Eggers and siblings went through this tough time in their lives, and somehow, they made it work. In addition, he can also be pretty vulnerable. He expresses plenty of self-doubt, especially if he’s being the best parent he could possibly be to Toph. Eggers also writes with sincerity about his family, especially his parents. It’s clear that he loves them despite their flawed natures, especially his dad (part of it involves a broken door). On the other hand, he can come off like an egotist in the most Gen X way at times. This is most apparent when he and his co-workers at the Might magazine bash on The Real World, yet he ends up auditioning for the show. At least he gets called out for his egotism by various people including Toph.

In the meantime, I wasn’t expecting the funny bits. I loved the running gags of Eggers telling Toph to clean his hat because it smelled like urine and to stop saying certain words. Moreover, I enjoyed reading about his fantasies. These included how he would murder all of his enemies, how he would rescue Toph if the latter was every put in foster care, and what would happen to his little brother when he left him with the babysitter. They were all surprisingly hilarious.

This was mainly because of the audiobook narrator Dion Graham. There’s a reason why Graham is one of the most prolific ones around. He’s gotten a lot of accolades for his works, and he’s pretty versatile. He has recorded audiobooks for young adult novels like Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas to Death by Black Hole by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Graham has also worked on audiobooks by authors like Dave Eggers, and I can see why. He embodies whatever he’s saying. Even when Eggers digresses (he tends to do this a lot), Graham gives a reason to why those happen with appropriate tones. Also, his choking sounds left me in pieces. When Eggers becomes filled with self-doubt or narcissism, Graham vocalizes those. However, I wasn’t able to listen to the rest of the audiobook due to issues with some of the cds from that audiobook. 

The only thing I wish the audiobook would have done was include the preface, the acknowledgements, and the ways to enjoy the book all written by Eggers himself. They really set up the memoir’s tone and the awareness that not everybody will read all of it. I’m going to be very honest. I didn’t know about those aspects until I cracked open a physical copy of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. At the same time, when I read the book, I still had Dion Graham’s voice stuck in my head. That’s the power of a great audiobook narrator.

Overall, there’s no book like A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, yet it can get on people’s nerves if they don’t know what they’re getting into. It’s filled with humor, sadness, and sincerity. However, it’s also filled up with pages of rambling that can either delight or annoy people after a while. At the end of the day, it all depends on what the reader can tolerate. I would recommend it to those who want something different in their memoirs and are fans of Eggers’s other works. It’s up to the reader to read the physical copy, listen to the audiobook, or both. Even though it rubbed me the wrong way at times, I can see why people view it as a modern classic.

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Published by emilymalek

I work at a public library southeast Michigan, and I facilitate two book clubs there. I also hold a Bachelor's degree in History and Theatre from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI; a Master's degree in Library and Information Science from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI; and a Graduate Certificate in Archival Administration also from Wayne. In my downtime, I love hanging out with friends, play trivia and crossword puzzles, listening to music (like classic rock and K-pop), and watching shows like "Monty Python's Flying Circus"!

One thought on “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius Book Review

  1. Sounds like you and I agree about this book, although I read the hardcopy, not the audio.

    Much of A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS is delightful, including the parts that someone just listening to the audio version would miss. Dave Eggers has a writing style like I’ve never read before. What would otherwise be, for example, sad or serious, he lightens. My gosh, he even makes the copyright page enjoyable reading! And I’m glad I read a hardcover copy and could see the cover minus the dust jacket. Check it out sometime if you can see it minus the library’s mylar cover.

    Eggers explains that he wouldn’t really call A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS a true story because he made up the dialog. And sometimes that dialog is obviously his invention, such as when a 9-year-old boy talks with the maturity of a 30-year-old man or when he begins with his MTV interview that turns into something else. I sometimes had to re-read to understand what he was doing.

    Before the beginning of A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS Eggers notes all the parts you can safely skip. But that made me want to read them all the more, and I didn’t skip anything. I admit, though, after 100 or so pages his style sometimes aggravated me, his constant repetition, so I did skim some paragraphs. Even though I could tell that those paragraphs represented his private thought processes, I sometimes found them disjointed and monotonous.

    Most reviews of this book concentrate on only part of the story, he and his little brother. Yes, Eggers raises his much younger brother, Toph, after their parents died. And, of course, Toph is a big part of the story. But he also emphasizes all the energy he expended on his startup magazine.

    Also running throughout his story are his remembrances of his mother, beginning near her end. Yet he doesn’t have much to say about his father, apparently an alcoholic.

    Liked by 1 person

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