“A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”

Grief is supposed to come in a neat package. You can’t believe something bad happened to you, you get ticked off, you wail at God to change things so they go back to normal, they don’t so you get sad, really sad, and when the sadness gets too boring you get over it and then it’s all good. Or at least, the so-called five stages of grief give the deceptive illusion it goes so smoothly.

Unfortunately, that’s not the way it goes. Things meander, they go underground, they blend with other things. Something may look like one thing to someone, and yet the mourner feels another. It’s a messy, jagged process that rambles all over the place. Nothing depicts this better than Dave Eggers’ “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”.

If you are looking for a straight up memoir about how this man’s parents died, how he quietly wept on the grave and put on a brave face in the wake of it while raising his orphaned baby brother, you will be disappointed. This is not a quiet story, more like a comedy of the absurd. You may be puzzled by what seems to be irrelevant material, thinking that the author has exploited his parents’ death to revel in exhibition about his wild late adolescence and early adulthood, part of Gen-X Zeitgeist.

Part of my empathy as a reader comes from personal identification. Eggers was twenty-one when both his parents died of cancer. I was eighteen when my mother died of the disease and twenty-when my father, already disabled from a stroke eleven years earlier, died of cancer as well. In between, there was trying to find an identity and my place in this world while dealing with the strange aftereffects of these traumas. There really is no great time to lose people, but losing them as an adolescent or young adult seems to have some strange side effects that aren’t really calculated in the average grief recovery handbook.

That’s the weird netherworld that Eggers depicts in his book. To me, that was the point with his off the topic meanderings and countless encounters with his peer group. College-aged people are making adult decisions for the first time, blundering in a way that sometimes works out well and sometimes does not. Who you are in relation to the real world is just coming into play. Having something like a couple of dead parents really complicates the issue of a life not quite formed yet. Working on a memoir about my own experience with the topic, I can see where Eggers is coming from, because my peer group figures in more prominently than speaking to my parents’ friends about what the meaning of life is, or politely dabbing my eyes over their graves while on the stage 3 of bargaining.

So, this is something to keep in mind if you read the book. Eggers is a writer that doesn’t take himself seriously, even joking that you can skip over this part or some other part because it’s about adolescent angst more than anything else. But with the overseas wars, there are a lot more bereaved teenagers and young adults than ever before. They may have lost parents, siblings, lovers, friends, or in some cases, spouses. This age group tends to get disparaged a lot anyway, and people seem to forget that despite their seeming oddities, they are still people, not space aliens from Mars. Rambling as the book may be, I related to the text, and if you are willing to delve into the mind of a twentysomething to see if there is more than selfishness there in a time of trauma, I recommend that you read Dave Eggers’ book.

3 Responses to ““A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius””

  1. Kathy T says:

    Jessica, There is no good time to lose a parent. My father died of cancer when I was seven years old. It is not easy for a child or adolescent to deal with the death of a parent. I have empathy for you and the author of this book. If does affect your life after an event which is traumatic, and not easy to understand why it has to happen in this way. It is true what you say that now because of the 2 wars our country is involved with, a lot of young people experience the death of a spouse , boyfriend, girlfriend at an early age. We wonder how can these people deal with these tragedies. Also children are left without a parent at a young age.

    • Jessica says:

      Hi Kathy,

      Like you said, there is no good age to lose a parent. I am so sorry to hear of how your father died when you were so young. The aftermath of grief is a strange one because the aftereffects can go on long after most people assume you move on. With me, it permanently change my perspective on life. It’s easy to forget that something like that can change a person’s outlook for good, especially to an outsider. Thanks for the comment!

  2. I’m so glad to read this post. I went to the library recently to borrow this book, but it wasn’t on the shelves. I’ll try again.

    We have to respect the different ways people grieve and try to put their lives back together. I anyone who survives losses early in life. I look forward to reading your memoir. (And it might help others get through the rough patches in their lives.)