A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
, a memoir by Dave Eggers (2000), was an immediate success both critically and commercially. It reached the number one spot on The New York Times
Best Seller list and was nominated as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. It was named The Best Book of the Year by Time Magazine
, and named the twelfth best book of the decade by The Times
. Eggers is well-known for his satiric style.
As the story begins, Dave’s mother has a nosebleed that will not stop. Dave knows that his mother’s blood cell count is low and that a simple nosebleed could cause her to bleed to death, but she does not want to go to the hospital. He does not understand why his mother will not go to the hospital. Dave wonders how long it will take for her to die, and what he should be doing to prepare her, the family, and all of their friends for it, when the time comes. Finally, Dave’s sister Beth arrives and convinces her mother to go to the hospital.
They are in the hospital, and Dave is watching his mother sleep in the hospital bed. He thinks about the last time he saw his father. The doctors were doing what they believed to be a routine check for lung cancer. Tragically, his father died with very little warning, and the family was left in shock. Dave remembers the funeral, with many good friends coming to show their respect. He had spoken to one of his father’s good friends. For some reason, the friend was particularly focused on the way Dave’s father drove. Dave was surprised at how many people remembered his father, and it seemed as though they all knew a different man from the one that Dave had known.
Dave’s parents die within five weeks of each other. Dave, Beth, and their brother, Bill, begin to pack up the house to sell it. Then they move to California. Bill begins working in Los Angeles, and Beth has plans to begin law school in Berkeley. Dave moves in with Beth for a short time, along with his girlfriend, Kirsten. Dave begins to spend all of his free time with his little brother, Toph. Beth and Dave now have legal custody of Toph. Dave believes that it is important for Toph to have a good summer after the recent tragedy in the family. When the summer ends, however, the lease on the house they are living in also ends. Beth decides to move into an apartment in Berkeley, and Kirsten, too, moves out on her own. Dave must find a place for himself and Toph but has no income except for the social security, sent to his eight-year-old-brother. After a struggle, Dave is able to find a place not too far from Beth.
Dave is trying to adjust to life as a single parent. He has a hard time organizing his household, and has paperwork sent from Toph’s school more than once. Toph is almost always late for school because Dave, in the midst of depression, has a hard time even getting out of bed. Still, Dave mostly worries about his brother, and the emotional problems he might grow up with because of his own inept role as Toph’s parent. Dave becomes obsessed with social workers coming to take Toph away from him. Although most people his age are going out and having fun, Dave finds he cannot leave the house and Toph without worrying that the boy will injure himself somehow. These obsessions pervade his thoughts any time he is away from his brother.
Dave manages to find income with a temp agency, and uses his artistic abilities to make a little bit of money. Together with several friends of his,he begins a magazine called Might.
The magazine is primarily written for people in their twenties. It is a struggle in the beginning, but soon finds a moderately sized readership. It is satirical, and its editors pose naked on several occasions. They also kill off a beloved child star of the seventies. Later, the magazine struggles financially, and it is clear that the end is near.
Eventually, Dave returns to Chicago and his hometown. It is a few years after his parents’ deaths. He visits his childhood home, and visits the funeral home that processed both of his parents’ bodies. They were donated to science after that. Dave receives his mother’s ashes, which were given to the funeral home by mistake. He throws them into Lake Michigan, and hopes it is something his mother would have wanted. This helps Dave deal with the deaths of his parents and move past the tragedy in a more concrete way. Shortly after that, Dave moves to New York with Toph. He finally feels as though this is the right decision, and although they will be completely on their own, Dave feels ready.