When I got David Eggers' Pulitzer Prize nominated "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" for Christmas I took one look at the front and back covers and stuck it on a shelf. The description of "manic-depressive" a few inches above the title didn't do much in the way of motivation.
When I finally picked it up a few weeks ago I was pleasantly surprised, then later I became increasingly bored and kind of annoyed. At some points I even referred to it as "A Heartbreaking Pain in the Ass."
The book opens with a lengthy dedication, a guide to the metaphors explaining the major themes of the book, explanations, and even a note about what pages should be skipped. I was entralled with the fact that from the copyright page onward there were details and hints about what was to come. It was all layers and excitement.
Based in fact with added daydreams/nightmares, the book tells the story of 21-year old Dave who finds himself raising his 8-year old brother after his parents die of different diseases within 32 days of each other. He subsequently moves to California with his older siblings who pop in and out of the story, but his young charge, Toph, is the grounding theme. As Dave floats around in his memories of his Midwestern childhood and 1990's San Francisco, there is always Toph pulling us back to reality.
He raises his brother, drives him to parties, attends parent-teacher confrences, tucks him in to bed, reads him stories, and worries if he is screwing him up for life. Conversely, he thinks this is all a grand experiment in which to do it better than his own parents with their own child, he goes out to bars, dates and sleeps with various women, and starts a Gen X magazine called Might.
At one point he auditions for MTV's The Real World San Francisco (the infamous Puck makes an appearance in Dave's life!). He writes about growing up in Lake Forest, Illinois near Chicago, his friends, parents, happy/sad/scared presenting it in interview style in place of the audition interview.
After this point his style of writing and too many literary devices starts to grate on me. As his life is no longer careening toward something, the book stagnates and the writing is almost too much to keep going. However, I do because I have to know what happens to Toph. Clearly Eggers is well enough to have written this book, but what about his brother? I keep going for him the way Dave does in the story.
At a whopping 400-something pages the book finally ends, Toph is still growing up, and his brother loves him. I am exhausted after reading this and having to read other books on the side just to get through it. Perhaps that is the point though, that brilliantly, Eggers presents us not only with the story but also the feelings he felt at the time of these events. Somehow, instead of simply procuring emapathy with his words he actually forces us to feel as he did.