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heartbreaking

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (ISBN 0-330-48455-9) is a memoir by Dave Eggers released in 2000. It chronicles his stewardship of younger brother Christopher "Toph" Eggers following the cancer-related deaths of his parents.

The book was an enormous commercial and critical success, reaching number one on The New York Times bestseller list and being nominated as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. Time Magazine and several newspapers dubbed it "The Best Book of the Year." Critics praised the book for its wild, vibrant prose, and it was described as "big, daring [and] manic-depressive" by The New York Times.

Plot synopsis

In Lake Forest, Illinois, Dave Eggers and his siblings, Bill, Beth and Toph (who is 13 years younger than his next-eldest sibling, Dave) endure the sudden death of their father due to lung cancer. Thirty-two days later, their mother dies from stomach cancer after a long struggle.

Afterwards, Dave, Beth and Toph move to California. Bill, who does not play a large role in the plot, eventually moves to L.A. The rest of the family live in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Dave and Toph begin living on their own in a dilapidated, untamed fashion. Dave struggles between moments of feeling that his approach to parenting is calculated and brilliantly designed to make Toph well-adjusted, to worrying that his hands-off approach and commitment to personal projects will make Toph maladjusted. Dave's own attempts to lead a normal life as a young adult often involve surreal encounters with women and alcohol. He feels both guilty for leaving Toph and damaged by his parents' death, and this fuels his pursuit of sex and irresponsibility.

Dave and his friends organize an independent magazine called Might in San Francisco and become engrossed in the Generation X culture. Much of the magazine's history is portrayed in the book. Dave also auditions for MTV's The Real World in a development on the theme of exhibitionism.

Fiction or non-fiction?

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is usually classified as a memoir or autobiography, and its foundation is certainly laid in true events. However, Eggers takes great creative liberties. He often writes wild, tangential fantasy scenes. He occasionally "compresses" time, making events in the book closer in time to one another than they actually were to enhance the flow of the story. Thus, this work probably falls into the category of creative non-fiction.

The author sometimes has characters lapse into breaking the fourth wall by acknowledging their existence within the book at several points when talking to Eggers. In these cases, the characters often abandon their typical real-life personalities and characteristics, becoming tools with which Eggers can express and analyze his own thoughts and feelings in an "internal" dialogue, or vehicles for self-criticism.

Eggers points out to his readers what parts of the book were fictionalized or exaggerated in the course of the book and the preface, and the shifts from actual conversations to mere dramatizations of Eggers's thought processes are dramatic enough to be quickly recognizable when they occur, though other fictionalized aspects of the book are not always as easy to spot.

Preface and addenda

Unusually (but typical of Eggers's comedic style), the book includes lengthy preface and acknowledgement sections, a list of tips to help better enjoy the book (including several tips not to bother reading large sections of the book), and a guide to its symbols and metaphors.

Later printings of the book also include an addendum called Mistakes We Knew We Were Making, which details some of the deliberate omissions and composite events that made the book flow more easily.

Film adaptation

In 2002, New Line Cinema bought the rights to adapt the book into a film. The screenplay was written by novelist Nick Hornby and screenwriter D.V. DeVincentis. Several directors have expressed interest in the film, but none have thus far signed on, and the fate of the film remains uncertain (see development hell). Eggers has said that, if the film is made, he will be a producer for it.

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