The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 26 May 2004

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

by Dave Eggers

When he was less than a year from finishing college, Eggers lost both his parents to cancer within a few weeks of one another. His younger brother was just seven or eight years old. By agreement with his older siblings, he became Toph's guardian and moved from chilly Chicago to a busy life in the San Francisco Bay Area. This book could have turned out to have been a maudlin memoir of loss, but it is, instead, a fast-paced reflection on youth and responsibility, alternately hilarious and sweet. Eggers writes with a youthful verve. He should. He was immersed in an artsy young community during the booming early '90s in San Francisco. He writes with irony and humor and an edgy drive to participate in life. Dave and Toph struggled to make a more or less normal life for themselves while Eggers also reflected on the complex emotions of loss and feeling deserving of so much more, having experienced such tragedy so young. His energetic writing is rife with humorous vignettes involving the big brother who wants to play, but who must also be a parent. Toph seems game and is a level-headed presence in the book, though we don't really hear much from him. Eggers weaves together tragic stories from people around him, in a sense feeding off of an overall sense of tragedy. He is hyper-aware of this though. People often slip out of character to criticize the author for what he is doing. This often leads to some very sensitive passages about the nature of memoir and the self-conscious recording of life as it happens. Eggers retells his tragedy while knowing that he is delivering it to readers for entertainment or edification. He struggles with this self-consciousness and writes of it in a revealing way. The studied irony of the book, though, also becomes tiresome at points. Eggers and his friends want to publicize their magazine by having him try out for a role in the San Francisco edition of MTV's Real World. The author uses this interview to plumb his childhood experiences, stringing them together just for the opportunity to tell them here. This is perhaps the weakest section of the book. Otherwise, it reads like a jittery novel, fast-paced and sensitive. Overall a very good book (and one can safely skip the 50-page acknowledgments section), but not one to live up to its title joke.

[Mail John][To List]

[Other Biography]

[Other Books in or about California]