A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is not a novel but a memoir based on a true story. Dave Eggers, 21 narrates how both of his parents died five weeks apart, of different cancers, leaving him with custody of his eight-year-old brother Toph, both brothers soon moving with their older sister Beth, from Chicago to San Francisco, where Eggers and some high school friends start the alternative magazine Might.
But even in San Francisco they can’t escape tragedy, a friend tries to commit suicide, and another friend’s girlfriend dies suddenly.
Dave and Toph now live in Brooklyn, where Eggers publishes McSweeney’s, a widely successful literary quarterly. In his memoir, he unflinchingly evokes the awful eternity of watching a dying parent’s final days. “They took my mother’s stomach out about six months ago. At that point, there wasn’t a lot left to remove - they had already taken out [I would use the medical terms here if I knew them] the rest of it about a year before. Then they tied the [something] to the [something], hoped that they had removed the offending portion, and set her on a schedule of chemotherapy. But of course they didn’t get it all. They had left some of it and it had grown, it had come back, it had laid eggs, was stowed away, was stuck to the side of the spaceship.”
In addition to Eggers’s mother succumbing to stomach cancer (while repeatedly coughing up a green deathly fluid and experiencing chronic life-threatening nosebleeds), we learn via progressively revealing flashbacks that Eggers’s father died from cancer the previous month.
Their parents dead and the house sold, Bill returns to his Washington D.C. job while Eggers and Toph follow their sister Beth out to Berkeley, where she is attending law school. It is the relationship between Eggers and Toph that defines the blessed heart of this book. The two of them share a house together near the Haight. Toph is enrolled in a nearby grade school, and Eggers finds part-time work as a graphic designer and illustrator. In his dual-role as older brother and surrogate parent, Eggers is beset by anxieties he’s never known before:
The story is truly heartbreaking but does not seek for sympathy. The writing is amazing and sometimes funny. It is a different kind of writing with pacesetting standards for a memoir-cum-literary art.