Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

           Meet Monkey, my thirteen-year-old brother. His real name is Treyson (“third” “son”), but when he was born I didn’t like that name. I had a bad teacher named Mrs. Rayson and a bully in my class named Trey, so I channeled my inner preteen brat and renamed him Tanner, which has served as his name ever since. A few years ago I nicknamed him Monkey because he’s little and always hangs on bigger people like the aforementioned primate. When Monk has short hair he looks like this...
and when he has long hair and makes this face, he looks like Robert De Niro.

I’m 12.5 years older than him because he was an accident child, so our relationship is unique. When he came into the world I was old enough to realize that being an ass-hat to your younger siblings is actually pretty wack and I was young enough to be the cool, suave older sister. I really like my brother, he’s arguably my favorite primate on the planet, but let me be clear: I do not want to raise him. I get to take him to movies and stay up late with him and break the rules. I don’t have to dole out punishment or make sure he gets to school on time or question why he doesn’t eat his veggies. Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius* did not have that choice. At age 21, his family fell apart when both of his parents died within five weeks of each other. His mother’s death was imminent, as she had been suffering from gastric cancer, while his father’s death was relatively surprising. Dave was forced to become primary caregiver for his youngest brother Toph, who was eight at the time of his parent’s death. I don’t know about you guys, but at age 21 I was learning the art of a mixed drink, not the art of convincing little kids that brushing your teeth is important. Admittedly, I had to Google “what do eight year olds do” to finish the last part of the previous sentence. I didn’t find anything interesting, so I guess I’m going the eight-year-olds-probably-brush-their-teeth-or-at-least-they-should route.

Dave’s transition from playful older brother to roommate/father figure was as tumultuous as you’d expect. What you don’t necessarily expect is Dave’s gripping prose. He’s straddling the threshold of adulthood/responsibility and youth/recklessness and he unhesitatingly lobotomizes himself for readers, allowing us to penetrate the depths of his struggles and confusion. He writes with a manic-depressive tone, excitedly portraying his predicament as an opportunity in one breath and dejectedly reflecting on the potential martyrdom of his twenties in another. On the one hand, he has “this amazing chance to right the wrongs of [his] own upbringing” (Eggers, 117). Toph’s “brain is [his] laboratory” where Dave can input his own life views and raise Toph in a way that specifically corrects the mistakes his own parents made (Eggers, 49). On the other hand, this duty to rightly-raise his kin leaves no margin for error. No pressure or anything. Dave is overwhelmed with guilt as he (semi-jokingly) questions whether his poor cooking/cleaning skills and his inability to show up anywhere on time will result in Toph growing up to be a mass murderer or pet torturer. Toph is a responsibility that is sometimes a burden despite the fact that Dave loves him tremendously.
Dave’s life is worth reading in and of itself but what made the memoir the critically acclaimed bestseller that it is was Dave’s ability to be terribly funny amidst his terrible tragedies. He’s a self-conscious smart ass who manages to even make the typically bland Copyrights page laugh-out-loud amusing. He combines Nick Flynn’s poetic insight in Another Bullshit Night in Suck City with Joseph Heller’s satirical witticisms in Catch-22. He’s comedic in the way he writes and the way he interacts with others in real life. For instance, he starts a fringe magazine with his friends that runs segments like “What’s Hot/What’s Not”. “What’s Hot” lists things like the sun and lava (molten). “What’s Not” lists things like a cold beverage and lava (hardened) (Eggers, 172).

Still, Dave's comedy does not shroud his brutal honesty. He’s talking about really sad stuff in really intimate ways and he doesn’t shy away from explaining things as they really are. When he walks into a room, he paints a blatant picture of what everyone is thinking, saying, and feeling. And sometimes it’s ugly. But it’s true. There are multiple layers to his reaction to his parent’s death and he won’t stop until he picks through them all. He honors parts of his parent’s lives while recognizing their flaws. He admits that while his situation is awful, there is a celebrity associated with orphan-ism, a “good brother” status that comes with raising Toph, and an advantage to playing the “tragic guy” card. He obsessively combs through these conflicting emotions, showing the reader how unhinged he is by feeling all of these things at once. Furthermore, the death of his parents and the darkness that follows him like a cloud thereafter produces a kind of hypochondria where he fears that terrible things will continue to happen to him and his friends. This transmutes into a belief that he deserves these terrible things. The man is taking a psychological beating.

When I originally picked up this book-- at the astute recommendation of my book-loving friend Shreya—I thought the title was merely goofy and dramatic. Eggers is both goofy and dramatic… but the story is truly heartbreaking and the writing is staggeringly genius. It resonated with me by reminding me of my dear relationship with my youngest brother (Pic on left: 2015, reasonably spaced eyebrows. Pic on right: 2005, questionably spaced eyebrows). 

Nevertheless, I think that it will resonate with most readers because of its openness. A writer who is sincere in his struggles and conveys that sincerity skillfully is worthy of reading and as such, I give this book 5 out of 5 camel humps.

*Eggers, Dave. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. New York: Vintage Books, 2000. Print.

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