Thursday, September 17, 2009

Favorite Passages: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers

You know those books you read when you're a young teenager that you fall in love with so quickly and recklessly that it sort of consumes your life? There is no book I can relate to this experience more than Dave Eggers's wonderful, bizarre, very post-modern memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I bought it a month after turning sixteen, a couple years after the book had sort of taken the literary world by storm, racking up awards and rave reviews like nobody's business. I knew the book had been widely acclaimed, but other than that, I had no idea what to expect. It was about five-hundred pages long, and I finished it in less than a week. And as soon as I finished it, I picked it right back up and read it again, a feat I have never accomplished since. I loved this book completely. I don't know why, exactly. It's the story of the years after Eggers parents died, when he was raising his much younger brother, Toph, in San Francisco. It's a tale of dealing with mortality and grief, a story about parenthood and brotherhood, a hilarious romp about being young and naive and overconfident. The book is everything you could ever want from a good memoir: candid, painful, sad, and very funny all at once. I couldn't get enough of Heartbreaking Work or Dave Eggers.

Unfortunately, as I've gotten older, the book has made less of an impression. I still enjoy reading it and still think it shows flashes of brilliance. But as I grow up and read more, the book's quirks seem more stilted and schtick-y than I remembered. I'm used to this; there are a handful of books I loved as a teenager and find harder to love the older I get. Yet, it still makes me sad that a book I lived and breathed for two years straight has sort of fallen out of favor a bit. Never fear, though. As much as the book has not lived up to its original impression, it's still a strong read. I'd recommend it to anyone who's willing to take a stylistic reading risk. It's full of weird, imagined conversations and moments that step out of reality, but it also deals with very real emotions and anxieties. Here is a passage that sums up quite nicely what I both worry over (the rushed style, the "what if" situations) and love (the topic of mortality and feelings of immortality, the brotherly relationship, the hilarious conversation at the end) about the book.

From A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers:

The cars flash around the turns of Highway 1, jump out from cliffs, all glass and light. Each one could kill us. All could kill us. The possibilities leap into my head - we could be driven off the cliff and down into the ocean. But fuck, we'd make it, Toph and I, given our cunning, our agility, our presence of mind. Yes, yes. If we collided with a car at sixty miles per hour on Highway 1, we could jump out in time. Yes, Toph and I could do that. We're quick-thinking, this is known, yes, yes. See, after the collision, as our red Civic arced through the sky, we would quickly plan out - no, no, we would instantly know the plan - what to do, the plan of course being ovious, so obvious: as the car arced downward, we would each, simultaneously, open our doors, car still descending, then each make our way to the outside of the car, car still descending, each one on each side of the car and then we would we would we would stand on the car's frame for a second, car still descending, each holding on to the open car door or the car roof, and then, ever so briefly, as the car was now only thirty feet or so above the water, seconds until impact, we would look at each other knowingly - "You know what to do"; "Roger that" (we wouldn't actually say these words, wouldn't need to) - and then we'd both, again simultaneously of course, push off the car, so as to allow the appropriate amount of space between our impact and the car's once we landed, and then, as the Civic crashed into the ocean's mulchy glass, we would, too, though in impeccable divers' form, having changed our trajectory mid-flight, positioning our hands first, forward and cupped properly, our bodies perpendicular to the water, our toes pointed - perfect! We'd plunge under, half-circle back to the surface and then break through, into the sun, whip our heads to shake the water from our hair and then swim to each other, as the car with bubbles quickly drowned.

ME: Whew, that was close!

HE: I'll say!

ME: You hungry?

HE: Hey, you read my mind.

Note: In random news, I recently found out that one of my favorite books is also one of President Obama's favorite books. That book? None other than the super-fantastic Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. How awesome is it to have a president that reads such great stuff?!

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