A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius Analysis

Dave Eggers


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Dave Eggers is viewed by many media critics as one of the stars in the Generation X literary world. A magazine editor with imagination and courage, he founded Might magazine and, after its failure, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. Through his editing he had achieved a certain intellectual status, as well as notoriety, in American culture before his thirtieth birthday.

His memoir, however, is not simply an account of the struggles of a young writer and magazine editor trying to find his niche in the Bay Area, although it includes such an account (in what is the weakest aspect of the book). Instead, the memoir is, at least in the first few chapters, a thoughtful, heartbreaking, funny, angry, and insightful depiction of human emotions, relations, and interactions, written by a young man who has a gift for delineation and dialogue. It makes the reader ponder what it means to be a parent, a sibling, or a child, as well as the nature of the family, loving or otherwise, nuclear or not.

Superficially, Staggering Genius naturally divides into four somewhat unequal parts. The first three are centered on the three salient events in Eggers’s life. The first and third are about equal in length—a third of the book each—while the middle section is much shorter. The first part deals with the death of his parents and his subsequent relocation from Illinois to a new life on the West Coast. This is followed by an account of his failed attempt to become a cast member in MTV’s Real World television show. The third event is the founding of the magazine Might. The final two chapters provide some closure on issues raised in the course of the book. Described in this manner, the book sounds like a traditional memoir.

To view this book as a traditional memoir, however, would be incorrect. It is more of an antimemoir, or perhaps, as some critics have suggested, a postmodern autobiography. Eggers is trying to tell a serious story, to convey serious emotions, to communicate his anger and joy and bewilderment to his audience, but apparently he does not take himself, his story, the form of the rendition of the story, or the structure of the book very seriously. Eggers does not hide his intent, his unconventionality, or his willingness to use humor and satire when facing serious emotional issues. Just the opposite is the case—Eggers forces the reader to confront his style and structure. The copyright page, for example, includes the author’s sexual-orientation scale and the self-description of his mind as “thrilling and complex.” The body of the book is preceded by more than thirty pages of introductory material. The material within these pages consists of “Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of This Book,” acknowledgments, a table of contents, an “Incomplete Guide to Symbols and Metaphors,” and a preface. The preface includes, among other items, a collection of passages removed from the body of the book, a list of the book’s major themes, and the author’s balance sheet of the income and expenses connected with the writing of the book. It ends, for no apparent reason, with a sketch of a stapler. This preface presents a sort of barrier for the reader. Critics have split, as will readers, over whether this preface is witty and clever or pretentious and annoying, or both. The best solution is to avoid the preface until after reading the text.

Eggers recognizes that memoirs have never been objective renderings of truth, but are very personal, often self-serving collections of observations, perceptions, and commentaries. They are not history, although they are not supposed to be fictional either. As is noted on the title page, Staggering Genius is “based on a true story.” (The analogy to a docudrama comes to mind. Eggers is, after all, a member of Generation X.) With irony and humor, Eggers forestalls criticism by being candid on both the copyright page and within the preface about the extent to which his account has been fictionalized or dramatized. The aspects of the memoir that were changed include dialogue, character and characterization, locations, and time. Most of the alterations were justified on the grounds of protecting the innocent and making the narrative manageable. What does not...

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Charles, Ron. 2000. "Very Clever Headline Goes Here." Christian Science Monitor, March 2, 2000, p. 21. Despite himself, Charles enjoys Eggers’s memoir.

Confessore, Nicholas. 2000. "Finite Jest." American Prospect, 11 (15): 86–88. Confessore reviews Eggers’s memoir and also provides a discussion about other works of Generation Xers.

Handler, Daniel. 2000. "Reality writes." Village Voice, 45 (5): 107. Handler discusses Eggers’s genius.

Hughes-Hellett, Lucy. 2000. "Successfully Too Clever by half." Spectator, 285 (8971): 36. The reviewer provides a British take of Eggers’s memoir.

Kakutani, Michiko. 2000. "Clever Young Man Raises Sweet Little Brother." New York Times, February 1, p. E-8. Kakutani, a prize-winning critic, praises Eggers’s memoir.

Lyall, Sarah. 2000. "First Came Instant Parenthood to a Brother; Now Comes Instant Celebrity." New York Times, February 10, p. E-1. Lyall reviews Eggers’s memoir and discusses the buzz around the author.

Rehak, Melanie. 2000. "Dave’s World." Harper’s Bazaar, February, p. 178. Rehak provides another positive Eggers’s work.