We are amazing, unstoppable

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Anyone who's read the largely Eggers-driven prose magazine McSweeney's on any kind of regular basis, starts to know exactly what to expect. The standard McSweeney's article is: self-referential; desperately earnest; overflowing with slightly intrusive format tricks e.g. lists and parody after parody of official documentation; and laced with bizarre dialogue that out-DeLilloes DeLillo at every turn, Pinter on acid, Beckett on weak tea. Worryingly, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (in line with every other critic, and the book itself, we proceed to shorten this to AHWOSG) begins in this very manner, with the foreword "THIS WAS UNCALLED FOR" preceding a de/reconstruction of the generic book copyright page. In the appendix, included in later editions upside down and running backward from the last physical page of the book, this very reconstruction is itself deconstructed in an attempt to disclaim any kind of ironic sneering behind such fiddling. Confused? Well, you could do worse than follow Eggers' handy "Rules and Suggestions for the Enjoyment of this Book" and just plough straight into the story proper. Worse includes succumbing to the eye-rolled desire to catapult this apparently annoying, quirky, self-effacing, multi-tiered irony cake across the room.

Why, given the above description of the book, could wanging the damn thing out of the window be ill-advised? Well, once all the early faffing and posturing is disposed of, the book proper is just beautiful. Eggers' limited success in his attempts to come to terms with the deaths of both of his parents from cancer (of which the book itself is one, a point which becomes clear to the reader shortly before Eggers hammers it home with one of the blissfully few intrusive McSweeneyisms in the book, but by that point he's almost forgiven before he has begun, the pleading of his narrative fitting seamlessly with the pleading of his stylish tricks) is told with frankness and a good, healthy dose of emotion---neither impersonal nor dripping with sickly tears.

His dialogue is spot on, largely reconstructions from memory. The careful interweaving of the life and death of Might Magazine, an anti-, or maybe post-Face publication, with slow deaths, near deaths and half-deaths provides an ideal matrix to set the story onto, the literary equivalent of the matrix Eggers pleads for, sometimes feels, is sometimes cut adrift from. And maybe you can forgive all of the unnecessaries---where Eggers painstakingly explains the act of negotiation in dialogue reconstruction as if it hadn't been the subject of plenty of novel-gazing in the past, or includes a partial table of symbolism in the story, as if no author had ever drawn such a table up before.

You can forgive all of this because Dave, his brother Toph, Beth, Shalini, Moodie, all the staff at Might, Sari the sexologist... they're all so young, and their youth gives them power to hurtle through the presages of death and old age. Look what we can do, the text says. We are amazing, the narrative says. We are unstoppable, says the whole, the author; the arc of this genuinely loveable piece of hubris as it aims squarely for the sun; Toph's frisbee, flung out by the sheer joy of being young and perfect and coiled like a spring; a blithe Icarus, climbing and climbing....