Volume 93, Issue 99

Wednesday, April 5, 2000


El Dorado worth the journey

Catherine Wheel rolls with punches

A Heartbreaking Work lives up to its name

Formula doesn't always succeed

A Heartbreaking Work lives up to its name

A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius. That's quite a title to live up to – full of pretension and lofty ambition. However Dave Eggers, the founder of Might magazine and current editor of the literary journal Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, manages to pull it off quite well.

The book is comprised of Eggers' memoirs detailing his early to mid- 20s. After both of his parents died from cancer within the span of a few months, Eggers was forced to drop out of university to look after his younger brother, Christopher.

It is at times a devastatingly sad book – most of the early section, which leads up to his parents deaths, is tough to get through. For the most part however, A Heartbreaking Work is a compelling portrait of a man struggling through a difficult period of time. It is also remarkably funny.

Eggers is a masterful writer and his straightforward prose is perfectly suited to his witty and irony-heavy style. The section of the book detailing the move that he and his brother undertook from Chicago to San Francisco is absolutely hilarious, as is Eggers' attempts at being a good parent to his brother. Without giving too much away, his methods are rather inept and unorthodox.

One particular memorable section deals with Eggers' attempt to get on MTV's popular and long-running program The Real World. He reproduces the interview he went through as part of the application process, which includes a bizarre discussion of the A Team's Mr. T.

The strength of A Heartbreaking Work lies in Eggers' ability to balance the pain he feels after losing his parents and the strain of raising a child with the spright humour that characterizes McSweeney's.

Unlike so many memoirs of this type, he doesn't wallow in his misfortune, nor does he waste time with overly flowery paeans to his lost loved ones. This fact provides the book with a rather refreshing slant on this type of endeavour and prevents it from descending into the realm of saccharine self-pity.

Aside from the strength of the main text, A Heartbreaking Work is distinguished by the incredible amount of detail which Eggers has put into it. There is a page providing "Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of this Book" and a lengthy section of acknowledgments, wherein Eggers reveals that he doesn't look good in red, mentions some of the other suggested titles for this book (among them was Old and Black In America) and tells the world that he voted for Ross Perot during the 1996 presidential elections.

A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius is surely the first must read book of 2000 and an excellent and entertaining effort. This is a brilliant debut and with any luck, it will mark the beginning of a long and distinguished literary career.

–Aaron St. John

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