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Eggers, the 29-year-old editor of the determinedly odd literary journal McSweeneys,
has written a memoir that wreaks delirious havoc by turning the autobiographical genre on
its head. As its flippant title makes riotously clear, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is fitted with
a bullet-proof vest of self-mocking irony. Before the narrative proper even gets under
way, were treated to some 40 pages of satirical prefatory material, including the
copyright page, which is itself loaded with jokes: "Published in the United States by
Simon & Schuster, a division of a larger and more powerful company called Viacom Inc.,
which is wealthier and more populous than eighteen of the fifty states of America, all of
Central America, and all of the former Soviet Republics combined and tripled."
This kind of David Lettermanesque preemptive strike could easily have backfired if
Eggerss memoir werent in fact as damn good as it turns out to be. A
Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is altogether a triumphant literary debut.
The laughter begins to stick in our throats when Eggers recounts the harrowing cancer death of his 51-year-old mother. He unflinchingly evokes the awful eternity of watching a dying parents final days - "All words will be considered her last, until they are followed by others." Some readers will undoubtedly be offended by Eggerss irreverence, but the jokes are an honest expression of the fragile human impulse to seek humor in the things that we fear the most:
In addition to Eggerss 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 Eggerss father died from cancer the previous month. Mind you, this is only the first chapter, set in the familys suburban Chicago home. Besides the dead and dying, were introduced to the members of the family still standing: Eggers, 21 at the time, his 23-year-old sister Beth, his 24-year-old brother Bill, and the youngest member of the family, 7-year-old Christopher, nicknamed Toph.
They took my mothers stomach out about six months ago. At that point, there wasnt 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 didnt 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.
Eggers and Toph play like frat boys, they spit mouthfuls of water at one another, and they slide across the wood floors in their stocking feet (a floor plan of the house is printed in the book along with an arrow showing us the best route taken for clear sliding). But mostly they bicker back and forth like geeky adolescents: " You suck, I say. No, you suck, he says. No, you suck. Nooooo, you suck. Well, you suckity suck suck. " They have a game to shock the neighbors - Eggers loudly snaps his belt like a whip and Toph screams at the top of his lungs as if hes being beaten bloody. At Tophs bedtime, however, as if to make up for all the silliness, Eggers regularly reads aloud from John Herseys Hiroshima.
I worry for us. I worry that any minute someone - the police, a child welfare agency, a health inspector, someone - will burst in and arrest me, or maybe just make fun of me, shove me around, call me bad names, and then take Toph away, will bring him somewhere where the house is kept clean, where laundry is done properly and frequently, where the parental figure or figures can cook and do so regularly, where there is no running around the house poking each other with sticks from the backyard.