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A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

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At Alan's and Mark's behest, I'm launching the discussion of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but seeing as how I'm at work right now, I won't be posting anything of depth until later today, at the earliest. Please don't let that stop you from posting thoughts of your own.

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Looking at the book during my lunchbreak, I'd like to add a few more details.

If you're going to comment on later parts of the book, add the "Spoilers" tag, ([spoilers] tags) please. Nobody wants to have the book ruined for them because just had to discuss what happens after the section under discussion, and gives no warning before diving in.

"Chapter 1" = "Part 1" of the book. Specifically, pp. 1-43. The title of the section and its description, as it appears on the book's "Contents" page, is:

Through the Small Tall Bathroom Window, Etc.

Scatology--video games--blood--"blind leaders of the blind" [bible]--some violence--turtles--embarrassment, naked men--mapping

BUT ... I'm sure somebody wants to comment on the "Rules and Suggestions for Engjoyment of This Book," of the Preface, or, particularly, the Acknowlegements, all of which precede Part 1, but set the stage for what's to come. Please feel free to include the early material in our discussion of Part 1.

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Let's commence with the discussion, while I still have some time on my lunch break.

I want to tread lightly here, because Mark hasn't received his copy yet, others are probably just diving in, and I don't want to hinder anyone's progress with this book. But you're all grown-ups. You're not overly susceptible to one person's opinion. You like what you like, and you'll read what you want to read, thankyouverymuch.

So I see no reason not to tell you, right up front, that this book just ain't cuttin' it. My opinion applies to all of the book that I've read (I'm on p. 283), but I mention it now because Eggers sets the stage for my dislike in the first few pages of the story.

I approached the book with stickies in hand, ready to mark thoughtful passages that I wanted to know more about. Right now, after 283 pages, I've used five stickies, and some of those have fallen off the page into the middle of the book, leaving me wondering what portion of text I marked, and why.

The main problems with the book, as I see them, are:

1. Eggers' story is about a man in his early 20s. He works on a magazine aimed at the same crowd. His story is at times touching, but it's thoroughly couched in the language and worldview of the "twentysomethings" I knew and grew up with -- and that worldview (I can't think of a better word, so please don't read too much into my usage of it) seems so long, long ago to my 34-year-old way of thinking.

Some of you may know that I wrote an article for "Relevant" magazine a couple of years ago and had some trouble with it. Turns out that the magazine is aimed at 20-32 year olds (I think I've got the range right), and by the time they asked me for an article, I was at the outer cusp of their target demo. As the publication process went along, I realized that the magazine's content, whatever you might think of its artistic merit, was squarely aimed at a demographic that I was no longer part of, and which, frankly, I had no desire to be part of. I'd left that behind. Where "Relevant" was largely about "seekers" and the "search" for meaning, I had found rest in a specific religious tradition, and was most interested in encouraging others my age to do the same. To try to tap into a mindset of 10 years earlier wasn't really feasible. The editor shaped my article into something that she thought the magazine's readers would like, and I was happy to sign off on her edits. But I realized that "Relevant" wasn't really the place for me. I'd moved on and wasn't interested in going back.

All of which is to say that I expected Eggers' book to have some universal truths, things I -- or anyone of any age, with some life experience under their belts -- could hang their hats on. I guess those things are in the book, but they're secondary to the first-person, self-conscious account of one man's overwhelming responsibility, offset by the indulgence and foolishness of a college-age kid (or very recent post-grad).

Could I relate to some of this? Sure. But do I really give a rip about Dave Eggers, his younger brother, or anyone else in this story? Not really. So there's no "heartbreak" in it for me.

Now, I'm sure Eggers would be the first to explain that my reaction is the very point of the book. His "rules and suggestions for enjoyment of this book" are very self-deprecating ("No need to read the preface ... the acknowledgements ... the table of contents ... pages 209-301 ... [or] the first three or four chapters," after which "the book is kind of uneven.")

I only wish I'd known that he was serious!

I was pacified when, in the "Acknowledgements," Eggers writes about "the unmistakable feeling one gets, after something truly weird or extraordinary, or extraordinarily weird, or weirdly terrible, happens to them, that in a way they have been chosen aspect" of the story, and follows that by mentioning "the aspect having to do with (perhaps) inherited fatalism," that I might get a book about an awakening of sorts. Were it religious, all the better. But the book has not delivered on this promise, and I'd say these supposed "aspects" are more in the author's mind than they are on the printed page. Somebody please point out where I'm wrong, limiting the discussion to Part 1, of course (or putting a "spoilers" tag ahead of any explanation that addresses later portions of the book).

OK, I've gone on long enough. I haven't discussed anything about Part 1, but I have discussed the pre-Part 1 portion of the book, as well as my general take on the whole of it -- at least as much of the whole as I've read.

I'm disappointed that the book isn't to my liking, but I'm also afraid others might feel put off by my reaction and reticent to share their own feelings about the book. To them I say, please, please post your thoughts on this book. It's clear from the reviews of the book that I'm in the minority, and I don't want to spoil the experience for others.

The discussion is open, and all opinions are valued. Please share yours.

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I've read about 2/3 of the book so far, but I'll try to just comment on the preface and Chapter 1 for now.

About the preface and acknowledgments: I find this section somewhat amusing, but not nearly as much as the author seems to think it is. He's swarmy and a smart-aleck of the highest degree. (It's obvious from the book's title). You do have to give him some points for honesty. The question is, does the book deliver? Is the reader ultimately going to be interested in what the author has to say? WIth this kind of setup, the author had better write something that delivers some great revelation about the mysteries of life, or else the typical reader is going to be pretty disappointed. I have some opinions on whether this is ultimately the case, but I'll hold off for now.

Chapter 1 is a fairly straightforward retelling of the slow dying of the author's parents. The detail is harrowing, and effectively written. This seems to be setup for the themes that will (presumably) be explored later in the book. One such theme is, how does one deal with grief? Does one shut down emotionally, retreat into a shell. Does one find an outlet in writing about it (which seems to be the case in Chapter 1)? Or is there another possibility? We'll have to find out how the book unfolds from here. We don't yet get much of a clue whether the author will deliver on the genius promised in the book's title.

In general, the author seems to have a stream-of-consciousness writing style that lapses into long hyperactive paragraphs or sections occasionally. When the hyperactivity kicks in, the volume of words can be hard to read, just like someone's real life hyperactive episode can be hard to deal with. But, it appears to be effective for portraying the author's state of mind at a certain point.

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I read this a couple of years ago, so can't remember part one all that well off the top of my head. But in general terms, I love this book. Which is not to say that I have given it a great deal of thought and consider it to be a masterpiece, but just that I really, really enjoyed reading it. I suspect that I would be much more critical if I read it again, but at present it ranks as one of my favourite books of the past few years.

Maybe part of the problem reading it now is to do with the hype, which is then made worse by the title - that it is supposed to be this great contempory voice. But the title is just brilliant. It's just really funny, calling your debut, autobiographical book something like that. On one level it's just stupid and arrogant, on another it's a kind of pre-emptive and precious ironic move; the author has already mocked his own book, so no criticism can hurt him, and on another it's very honest - I suspect the author really does think he's a clever chap, and is saying 'Look, I do think I'm pretty good, actually'. The title says a lot about the book - the whole thing is kind of about layers and layers and layers and layers of frustrated self awareness. He says something, then pours scorn on himself for saying it, then ridicules the scorn, then points out that he has just ridiculed himself for pouring scorn on himself, then says despite all this, if he's honest, he probably expects that people will somehow get this self-referentialism, and dig it, and then says how stupid he is for expecting this. And so on. Personally, I felt that all this kind of thing was what I liked, because despite it all, he is actually trying, very sincerely, to get something across. At times, it is maybe too much, but at times I felt like I really connected with it. And I am 25, so there we are.

I think I remember liking the way that you go from reading this very hip, cynical, funny and ridiculous acknowledgement section into reading part one, that turns out to be a very well written description of a time in his life - I think I found it quite jolting.

But mainly, it has 'Here is a drawing of a stapler', and then a drawing of a stapler at the end of the introduction, or somewhere at the beginning. I think from that moment on, I was in. I mean, that's genius, surely?

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Hi all, just to let you know I'm still planning on joining the discussion, but as of yet, no copy. Some bozo apparently has kept the book a week past its due date ... I mean, who would do that? Not me! Ever! (Really.)

Anyway, since I was the one who wanted to do a book club, I figured I'd let y'all know that I'm eagerly reading your submissions and will jump in whenever said bozo returns said book.

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From the Table of Contents:

Please Look. Can You See Us, Etc.

California -- ocean plunging, frothing -- Little League, black mothers -- rotation and substitution -- hills, views, roofs, toothpicks -- numbing and sensation -- Johnny Bench -- motion

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Part 1 is 43 pages, but Parts 2 and 3 combined run just seven pages longer. Therefore, I'm going to create threads for both Parts. Please post your thoughts.

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From the Table of Contents:

The Enemies List, Etc.

Demotion--teachers driven before us--menu--plane crash--light--knife--Barry Gifford--State of the Family Room Address--half-cantaloupes--so like a fragile girl--old model, new model--Bob Fosse Presents

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In which Eggers and Toph end up in California, take a trip to the beach while belting out Journey's Any Way You Want It, enroll Toph in private school and sign him up for Little League, and Eggers worries about getting a job and finding a place to live.

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Now the real drama of the story begins, as Eggers struggles to convince potential landlords that he can afford to pay the rent using Toph's Social Security payments, and his, ummm, future income stream (he's unemployed). The two brothers adjust to the new reality of the "parent-child" relationship forced upon them by Dave's guardian status, even though he isn't sure what to ask of his younger brother, or command of him.

He also can't seem to get Toph to school on time, which isn't to say that Dave isn't interested in Toph's school. He is interested -- in the single mothers he hopes to hook up with on parent-teacher night. The tendecy toward irresponsibility and sexual gratification for the older brother is spelled out by this point.

My parents were married and having kids at around the same age as Dave Eggers, but it's obivously different when there are two of you, and you're raising kids of your own -- not a sibling, with responsibility for him thrust upon you.

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This chapter offers a shift in tone. After a brutal first chapter, Dave seems to feel relieved that the ordeal is over. After such a traumatic experience of seeing two parents die within a short time, a lack of mentioning his parents appears to be a coping mechanism. The siblings also seem to be struggling to figure out the new family dynamic.

I saw this chapter as Dave and Toph trying to determine the boundaries of their father/son relationship. I think the references to '80s rock are used to mask Dave's cultural ignorance of any more significant literary or musical influences, something which becomes more apparent later in the book.

The cultural divide between Dave and the typical suburban parents is shown in the narrator's discomfort with the moms at T-ball.

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Dave is coming to terms with his growing parental responsibilities. At the same time, he has the sensual desires of a single man in his 20s. He seems to have trouble reconciling the two. He also fears growing up, yet is scared of unsavory influences upon Toph. Lacking the life experience as a parent to deal with his guardian role, he begins to get a little bit paranoid. Being a "single parent", Dave has nobody to turn to for advice, which contributes to his fears.

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Forgive me if this is from the wrong part of the book, but I am working from memory. In fact, just to make sure:

spoilers1.gif

One sequence that really struck from around this point in the story is Dave managing to get out one night, and wanting to soak it up as much as he can, make the most of his youth, etc. He describes being in this bar, and looking out over a balcony at this big crowd of people like himself. He describes the sound they make as being like a giant 'mooing', punctuated by an occasional scream of "Oh my God!!", and then says how he thinks that surely there must be a better use for all this youth and energy, that surely they should be out en masse, knocking things over, rebuilding things, changing things, whatever, even gathering together and having a giant orgy would be more constructive than just this incessant 'mooing'. This thing of feeling that his youth is being frittered away, and not just his, is one of the things that struck me most about the book - the awareness of being part of an apathic generation of people who mainly just hang around in bars occasionally shouting "Oh my God!!".

Maybe I only appreciate this because I hang aroung in bars a lot, talking about fairly irrelevant things...

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Well, uh, I'm a little embarrassed to be so late to the discussion. But my copy is finally in. Picking up today, will try to speed read and catch up to you guys ... that is, if anyone out there still cares to discuss ...

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I'm happy to continue the discussion, and see if I can muster up more enthusiasm for the book, but my copy is due back at the library tomorrow. Therefore, at the least, I won't be able to launch the chapter-by-chapter summaries pulled from the Table of Contents, although those probably aren't necessary anyway.

Who wants to pick up the baton? Mark? Crow?

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I would be happy to continue the discussion. But I also had to turn in my copy back to the library. However, I did make notes on each chapter, so I can continue discussing each chapter, although without Eggers' stream-of-consciousness titles. Unfortunately, I left my notebook with my notes at church yesterday, so I won't be able to retrieve it until tomorrow night. pinch.gif But, I'll post more when I get my notebook back.

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But no, no no - the Weight - seven years one senior, how fitting - John Doe - Decay vs. Preservation - burgundy, bolts

-----------------------------------------------------

I found my notes, so I'll keep this going if anyone is interested.

The only thing that struck me in this chapter, was the examination of the anxieties that Dave feels in his guardian role over Toph. He expresses his anxieties into the thoughts of Toph himself and holds a running conversation with them.

Although I admire the protective desire Dave has, I find his paranoia starts to get tiresome to read. But, his anxiety is understandable, as he has no living father figure to lean on for advice. To me, this made me think about when parents are not able or not willing look to their own parents for advice, they are left floundering as to how to raise a child of their own.

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Well, it's taken me longer to get through Chapter One than I had intended, but I was also at a point in Lonesome Dove which made it difficult to put that story down. Anyways, I made some time last night to re-read the first chapter of Eggers book, and had a few thoughts.

First, I read this book back in 2000 when it was first published, and this was only about two and half years after my father had passed away from lung cancer. My mother had also died of cancer 10 years previous to my dad, so much of the early portion of the book resonated very strongly for me. Egger's writing style may not have appealed to me all that much, but I thought he did a successfull job of conveying the feelings and emotions that a relative of a cancer patient goes through when living day to day with the disease so close to you, destroying the people that you love.

The phrase Egger's repeats that hit closest to home was "People know." I could really identify with this, especially where my mother was concerned. Egger's and I were about the same age when our mother's were in their final stages. He 21 and I 22. Our mothers were also seperated by only one year. His mom 51, mine 52. There was a certain feeling early on when my mom was diagnosed that we should keep the news in the family. But, "family" also included some very close friends. For me, the feeling of "people know" seemed to come from these friends' knowledge of what was happening, and an underlying feeling (paranoia perhaps) that they were quietly spreading the news to others.

I have to admit that, since seven years have now passed since my father's death, I don't have the same reaction to this book as I did upon first reading. There is a sense of self-indulgence in the writing, which I don't begrudge Egger's, but I can now see how this story may not be as affecting to someone who hasn't gone through a similar experience.

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Excellent thoughts, Baal. (Can I call you

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I kinda flew through this chapter. Again, as I mentioned about Part I, this is my second read of this book and I'm not getting that, "Hey, somebody understands what I'm going through" feeling when I first read it. Perhaps it is the passage of time from how I was feeling when I first read the book in 2000, but this time I just want Egger's to lighten up, to reach into the story and say, "You know, you're feelings are valid... but you act as though no one else has gone through what you're experiencing." The whole "we're owed" attitude is not something I experienced after my folks death, and I find it a rather annoying repeated phrase.

There was one thing that jumped out at me in this chapter. And that is the use of the word "orphan" as relating to Eggers, his sister and older brother, and one of their roommates. To me, Toph is the only real orphan among them. It reminded me of an experience I had back in 2001. I was building a county exhibit for the California State Fair, and there was an older lady who was painting the exhibit. She was probably 10 to 15 years older than me, and I think she may have been an ex-hippie. She was very into the New Age lifestyle. She and I got to talking, and as happens the talk turned to family. When I informed her that both of my parents had passed away, her first reaction was to say, "Oh, you poor thing, I had no idea you were an orphan." Now, at the time I was 36 years old, and I had never thought of myself as an orphan... in fact, I found it quite amusing. But I went home that night, got online and Googled "adult orphans". Man, was I surprised at what an industry there is in reguards to that field! Everything from college-age orphans to senior orphans, and books and tapes for every age-group orphan in between.

But, as I said earlier, I reguard Toph as the only orphan of this story. He is the only true child, reguardless of the level of maturity (or lack-there-of) of his siblings. I feel that there is a certain selfishness in Eggers that I am seeing during this second read, that I did not see when I read the book in 2000.

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The orphan issue is an interesting one. Yeah, I consider Toph an orphan, but not Dave, who

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I kept wondering what the other siblings were doing, and why Dave was saddled with Toph? I
Edited by Russ

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OK, I'm emerging from my haze to post some comments on the first chapter.

Baal, your thoughts echo some of my own - the "people know" portion was like a gut punch. I've mentioned in a few other threads that cancer has been like a ... well, a cancer in my family. It claimed my sister at age 43. My dad is fighting it now. So this portion of Eggers' book hit home.

(I actually made notes on this last week whilst awaiting the birth of my son ... gosh, what a productive use of down time, eh? ... but now am working off memory, so bear with me.)

What I'm left with after completing this section is Eggers' skill at capturing the "grittiness" of dying.

The black humor that seems so inappropriate to all but the ones caring for the dying, and the dying themselves.

The secret, dishonorable thoughts - like a murderous rage at people passing outside the window, living a happily mundane moment, and failing to share your pain and desperation.

The fear (the hope?) that your beloved has opened her eyes for the last time in the middle of the night and didn't see you sitting by the bedside.

The repulsion at the un-dignity of it all, at a human body so vulnerable to death, withering, writhing.

The fatalism -- if something this bad can happen (in Eggers' case, losing two parents in a month), can't anything? (Shortly before my sister passed away, when we knew her death was imminent, I got on a plane and remember thinking, "God wouldn't be so cruel as to take away two of my parents' children, so I'll be safe today." Such a stupid thought ... )

And "people know."

Remember the scene in "Terms of Endearment" when Debra Winger has lunch with a bunch of old friends? After lunch, she complains that the women sat around talking about their divorces, their abortions and their extramarital affairs, but the word "cancer" shut them all up.

People know. They know, but they don't acknowledge. Because they don't care? Nah, maybe because they do care. They can't handle the emotion. "They can't handle the truth!"

This, God love him, is where Eggers grabs me and won't let go. The scenes with his mother and sister and brother are tense, funny, sad, mundane, terrifying ... just like the real thing.

Yet there's something agonizingly annoying about his writing. He's so good (yes, "staggeringly" good) that he seems not to realize he needs to harness his story and take it somewhere. All his writing, from the Library of Congress notes (!) to the sardonic preface to the "deleted scenes", seems like a brain dump.

He pours it forth. Some sticks, some doesn't. Some engages, some doesn't. Some is hilarious, some is not. Some is profound and meaningful, some is self-indulgent and irritating and meritless.

Christian, I agree that the book is a product of its time. Eggers knows, perhaps, that he can get away with a bit of self-indulgence - not because of the pain he's suffered, and really, who would beat on a guy who's been through so much? - but because he defuses the criticism with his own acknowledgment (joking? half-joking? who knows?) that the book is uneven, that it falls apart after the first hundred pages or so, that it's another dreaded "memoir".

I wish I could agree with stu that this really is "genius" and a big asset to the book, but it feels too much like a Gen X staple. It detracts from the book's ability to appeal to a broader, universal audience. It already feels like an outdated style, despite a quite powerful story by an obviously talented writer.

OK, enough of that for now. Back later with part 2. Phew.

(BTW, I hope this post doesn't come off as too grim or depressing. Granted, we're discussing a book whose subject matter is pretty grim and depressing, but I hope delving into my own struggles with the dying process don't make anyone here uncomfortable. Since this portion of the book was so personally affecting, as it seems to have been for Baal, I thought it was appropriate for our discussion.)

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Too depressing? On the contrary, Mark. Very good stuff! Thanks for posting. I can see you're engaged, and I look forward to your further thoughts.

Maybe you can post while you try to calm the baby down at 3 a.m.? smile.gif

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