Memoirs are tricky for any author to tackle. Inherently narcissistic, the triumphs described are too often boastful and the tragedies too often exploitative. Dave Eggers knows this: The first 30 pages of his book—the preface, which Eggers tells impatient readers to skip—provide an incisive and hilarious dissection of the 300-plus fast pages that follow. It's clear from the elaborate pre-preface bibliographical information that this is no ordinary memoir. Rather, the (mostly) non-fictional A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius is a postmodern memoir in the mold of Laurence Sterne's fictional The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, a meta-narrative that turns in upon itself and tricks the reader almost every chance it gets. Eggers, one of the founders of the much-missed Might magazine, has seen enough death in his short life (including the faked murder of former child star Adam Rich) to fill such an experience-fueled endeavor, but the way he goes about doing it is what makes Staggering Genius work. When he was 21, both his parents died of cancer, and with his older brother out of the house and his sister in school, he was put in charge of his 8-year-old brother Toph. Instead of wallowing in guilt or depression, Eggers handles tragedy with sheer audacity, finding humor in the most dire situations and refusing to resort to self-pity. He and Toph live the perverse, parents-free fantasy many children fleetingly harbor, with Eggers sharing his bad habits even as he's forced to assume most of the responsibilities. The writing is never quite as clever or novel as in the virtuoso preface, but Eggers constantly finds ways to make even standard self-analysis interesting. At one point, a bedtime conversation with his younger brother morphs into a psychoanalytic session, with Toph suddenly wresting away the proxy-father-figure position and addressing Eggers with omniscient authority. Later, a casting call-back for The Real World (which actually happened) develops into a long confessional about suburban upbringing. The love of minutia and marginalia Eggers brought to Might makes even the most conventional prose inventive; ironically, this includes the relatively rote chronology of the magazine's creation. While Staggering Genius is admittedly uneven, that's paradoxically part of its unpredictable charm: Eggers would never go about things the standard way, and the book—at times both heartbreaking and genius—ably reflects his idiosyncratic, hyper-casual, pop-culture-saturated worldview.
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