A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers grew up outside Chicago before attending the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. When he was twenty-one, his parents both died of cancer five weeks apart. Eggers subsequently took responsibility for his seven-year-old brother Toph, moving to Berkeley, California, where he supported himself doing freelance graphic design. After a number of years writing on a freelance basis and editing Might magazine, Eggers published A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius in 2000, which became a bestseller. Eggers has written a number of novels since then, which have been increasingly focused on social issues in the United States. He is also the founder of the independent publishing house and literary magazine McSweeney’s, as well as the nonprofit tutoring and writing center 826 Valencia. He lives in California with his wife, Vendela Vida, and children.
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Historical Context of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius takes place in the 1990s, when a number of significant historical events and changes came to fruition. For instance, the First Iraq War took place between 1990 and 1991; in 1992, the Los Angeles Riots (or the Rodney King Riots) took hold of the city after four violent police officers were acquitted; and the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s continued to claim thousands of lives. Despite all this turmoil, though, not everyone was politically involved. Eggers, for one, only fleetingly mentions current events—his most frequent engagement with such concerns occurs when he worries in passing about the possibility of contracting AIDS. Still, though, his memoir is set against a backdrop of change, and the startup mentality he adopts when creating Might magazine is indicative of the simultaneously entrepreneurial and anti-establishment spirit that was common in San Francisco in the 1990s.

Other Books Related to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was published at the tail end of what became known as the “memoir boom” of the 1990s. As such, it is difficult to discuss its literary merits without referring to other ’90s-era memoirs like, for example, Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, which was published in 1993. Girl, Interrupted was so successful that it was made into a feature-length film in 1999, ultimately proving that the memoir as a genre was a commercially viable and popular form. Another well-known work from around this time is the Irish author Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, a book that relies upon anecdotes from the author’s life. While writing A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Eggers is painfully aware of the fact that this genre has recently become trendy—he even makes a possible reference to Frank McCourt in the Acknowledgements section, saying, “Maybe writing about actual events in the first person, if not from Ireland and before you turned seventy, was Bad.” Despite what he says about the genre, though, there’s no denying that he has contributed significantly to the surge of memoirs at the turn of the century.
Key Facts about A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
  • Full Title: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
  • When Published: 2000
  • Literary Period: Contemporary, Postmodernism
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Setting: Lake Forest, Illinois and the Bay Area in California
  • Climax: Eggers is most interested in analyzing his life and the lives of the people around him, so his memoir doesn’t follow a linear plot. As such, there is no discernible climax, though one of the book’s defining moments comes when his mother dies.
  • Antagonist: Death
  • Point of View: First person

Extra Credit for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

McSweeney’s. When Eggers was young, his mother—whose maiden name was McSweeney—used to receive confusing letters from a mysterious man named Timothy McSweeney, who claimed to be her relative. Later, Eggers named his literary journal Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern as a way of honoring both his mother and this stranger, who he eventually learned suffered from mental illness.

Visual Art. In addition to his work as a writer, Dave Eggers also occasionally produces visual artwork, and has had several solo gallery shows. In 2017 he released Ungrateful Mammals, a book of drawings of animals paired with dramatic phrases.