A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius Chapter 11 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Back in California, Eggers and Toph drive to Black Sands Beach, which is a secluded spot only ten minutes outside of San Francisco. As they drive, Toph says “Moooooooooooooo” at pedestrians out the window, and he and Eggers lose themselves in laughter. They have just realized that they’ve forgotten to go to a standardized test Toph was supposed to take in order to get into a certain high school. Even though Eggers jumped through hoops to sign Toph up for the test—having to prove that he is his guardian—he doesn’t mind that Toph is going to miss it. “Forget it,” he says. “Doesn’t matter now.” He feels this way because they have decided to move to New York. “I think it’s good to move around, see stuff, not get stuck,” Toph says, and Eggers notes that he “love[s] him for saying that,” even if he doesn’t truly mean it.
Toph’s eager willingness to move to New York relieves Eggers, who has clearly lost all desire to live in California. This, of course, has been coming for quite some time, considering how much Eggers has talked about the fact that working at Might no longer excites him. Still, Toph’s flexibility is remarkable, a sign that he wants to make Eggers happy. As a result, readers see that Eggers and Toph have a symbiotic relationship in which they both take care of one another.
Themes
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Eggers and Toph ease onto a dirt road that winds along hills overlooking the Bay. Eggers takes his hands off the steering wheel to scare Toph. “Don’t, asshole,” Toph says. Eggers tells him he can’t call him an asshole, so Toph calls him an “A-hole,” and when Eggers says that this is also unacceptable, Toph settles on “dickhead,” which Eggers says is “fine.” This, Eggers writes, is the first time he has heard Toph curse, and though he finds it “distressing,” he also thinks it’s somewhat “thrilling.” Similarly, Toph is getting stronger, such that when they wrestle, he actually puts up a respectable fight. Eggers loves this.
As Eggers nears the end of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, he makes a point to show readers how much Toph has grown up. This, it seems, is a testament to his style of guardianship, which is a mixture of brotherly love and parental protection. Although he allows Toph to say words like “dickhead,” which other parents probably wouldn’t permit, there’s no denying that he has done a good job raising his little brother, who is clearly happy.
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Related Quotes
In recent months, Eggers has tried half-heartedly to secure funding for Might. Lance even set up meetings for him and Moodie with rich people. When they spoke to the founders of Wired, though, Eggers found himself “woefully underprepared.” The Wired founders asked for “numbers and plans,” and so he and Moodie “fumbled and joked and did [their] best to sound confident, ambitious still, disguising [their] exhaustion, gesturing to each other.” In this way, they promised that they would be getting a new design team, “would stop making fun of advertisers,” would launch “TV shows and a Web site,” and would perhaps even put celebrities on the cover. When they left the meeting, they “both knew it was over” and realized they didn’t care.
What began as a fervent effort to produce an independent, contrarian magazine has now become nothing more than a burden, something that has made Eggers and Moodie feel “exhausted.” Eggers has lost his ambition to pursue his lofty ideals, so he agrees to a number of mainstream, commercial concessions that ultimately contradict the very premise of Might magazine. Although this message is bleak, the apathy he shows here suggests that he, like Toph, has also grown up, since part of adulthood means understanding the ways in which the world places limitations on creative endeavors. Rather than ruining Might’s legacy, the adult thing to do is to walk away from the project before it becomes something it was never meant to be.
Themes
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In the final issue of Might, the editors run an essay about death. Right before sending it to print, they look at it again and worry that it sounds “glib” and “callous,” since they recently got word that Skye Bassett has died. After a trip to New York, Lance nervously paced in the office until people started to look at him. “Skye died,” he said. “It was a virus and it attacked her heart. She was there just for a few days.” In the end, they decide to dedicate the last issue to her.
Once again, Eggers is reminded of death’s unavoidability and unpredictability. No matter where he goes, he can’t get away from events that will recall his parents’ deaths.
Themes
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John’s depression takes a turn for the worse. He has started vanishing for weeks at a time before calling from somewhere random and asking for money. Finally, he realizes he should go back to rehab, and because he has no money, he asks Eggers to foot the bill. Eggers obliges, driving to pick him up “from some place in the Oakland hills.” In the car, Eggers says, “There’s a part of me that wants to let you out of the car right now, on the fucking bridge.” In response, John says, “Then let me out.” Eggers then tells him that his story of addiction and depression is a cliché, saying that he’s boring. When John references Eggers’s own problems, Eggers says, “We’re not talking about me,” but John says, “Yes we are, of course we are. We always are.”
Eggers’s frustration with John is somewhat complicated, since he’s already made it clear that John represents “youth wasted.” as well as (in some way) his father. This is possibly why he is so exasperated by John’s constant desire to end his life—he realizes he can’t protect John, and he resents him for reminding him of the fact that he can’t control the safety of his loved ones. Of course, this is in some way a selfish worry, which John picks up on when he points out that Eggers is—at least in this book—always talking about himself.
Themes
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“How much do you really care about me, outside of my usefulness as some kind of cautionary tale,” John says, “a stand-in for someone else, for your dad, for these people who disappoint you—” Eggers interrupts to say that he is like his father, but John insists that he “can’t be reduced” like that. He then says that he’s just one of many people whose stories Eggers has appropriated. He points out that Shalini isn’t even one of Eggers’s closest friends. He then says that he feels sorry for Toph, who probably didn’t have “much say” in “this whole process.” Eggers objects to this, saying that his project is an example of “enlightenment,” “inspiration,” and “proof.” “No,” John replies. “You know what it is? It’s entertainment.”
In this meta-narrative conversation, Eggers finally reveals the link between John and his father, making it clear that they are both people who “disappoint” him. However, he also grapples with the idea that he has reduced his characters and used them for his own purposes. If this is the case, he reasons, at least he has done this to create a work that is “inspirational.” He doesn’t let himself off the hook so easily, however, as John points out a less flattering interpretation by suggesting that the painful stories Eggers has laced throughout the book are nothing more than “entertainment.”
Themes
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Death, Humor, and the Worst-Case Scenario Theme Icon
Guilt and Poetic License Theme Icon
Eggers insists to John that he’s “allowed” to tell these stories. “I am owed,” he says. “You’re not,” John says. “See—you’re just not. You’re like a…a cannibal or something. Don’t you see how this is just flesh-eating?” Accepting this metaphor, Eggers says that he would do it for John. “I would feed myself to you,” he says.
When John says that Eggers is a “cannibal,” readers will recall that Toph said the same thing when he was having a meta-narrative conversation with Eggers about Eggers’s treatment of people like Sari Locker and Adam Rich. This time, though, Eggers complicates the idea by insisting that the kind of “cannibalism” that comes from consuming and then retelling other peoples’ stories is actually normal, and even something he would have no problem subjecting himself to.
Themes
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Guilt and Poetic License Theme Icon
Eggers attends a party celebrating Shalini’s birthday and recovery. She has fully healed, except for the fact that her short-term memory often fails her. As such, she asks what the party is “for,” and Eggers tells her it’s her birthday and that there are so many guests because everyone’s excited that she has made a recovery. At this, she looks at him in confusion, and he and her sister tell her that she fell off a deck, went into a coma, and survived. “That is incredible,” she says.
Although Shalini’s story reminds Eggers of the many strange ways that life can go wrong, her recovery proves to him that not everything always ends in tragedy. Indeed, she has narrowly escaped death and, though she’ll never be quite the same, she can still lead a relatively normal life.
Themes
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Most of Eggers’s friends have moved away. Moodie has gone to New York, as have Kirsten and Zev. And now Eggers and Toph are going, too, “because going to work every day is starting to tear [Eggers] into little pieces.” As he sits on Black Sands Beach with Toph, he can’t help but think of their mother, remembering how—in her last months—she used to come with him and Toph to the beach and sit in the car watching them play Frisbee. Putting this out of his mind for the moment, he concentrates on tossing the Frisbee with Toph, who has learned a slew of new tricks. Eggers watches his little brother and simultaneously remembers his mother’s final days, thinking about her morphine drip even as Toph catches the Frisbee in triumphant, elaborate ways.
Even though Eggers is rather happy by the end of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, readers should note that he still can’t help but recall his hardships. Tossing the Frisbee on the beach, he thinks of his mother’s death, possibly reminded of her because it wasn’t so long ago that he spread her ashes into a large body of water. Now, though, he has the future to think about, concentrating on moving away from San Francisco to start the next chapter of his life.
Themes
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In the middle of a description of how good he and Toph are at Frisbee, Eggers writes, “Oh I’m not going to fix you, John, or any of you people. I tried about a million times to fix you, but it was so wrong for me to want to save you because I only wanted to eat you to make me stronger, I only wanted to devour all of you, I was a cancer—Oh but I do this for you.” He watches Toph leap along the beach, “blond and perfect,” and he thinks about how he’s “connected” to “millions” of people, standing before them and offering himself. “Don’t you know that I’m trying to pump blood to you, that this is for you, that I hate you people, so many of you motherfuckers[?]”
When Eggers thinks about how he’s connected to millions of people, he again transcends the boundaries of his story, this time acknowledging readers and imagining them reading about his life. By saying that he’s “trying to pump blood” to his audience, he recalls his earlier belief that he has something valuable to contribute—a belief he expressed to Laura in his Real World interview. This book, he suggests, is for his readers, whom he “hate[s],” perhaps because he knows they’ll never truly understand his experience regardless of how hard he tries.
Themes
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Having turned on his readers, Eggers writes, “What the fuck does it take to show you motherfuckers, what does it fucking take what do you want how much do you want because I am willing and I’ll stand before you and I’ll raise my arms and give you my chest and throat and wait, and I’ve been so old for so long, for you, for you, I want it fast and right through me—Oh do it, do it, you motherfuckers, do it do it you fuckers finally, finally, finally.”
In this final passage, Eggers tries to prove his earlier assertion that he would gladly sacrifice himself by giving other people his life story. He wonders “how much” of his life readers need (or want) before they’ll feel satisfied that they understand him. However, he seems to know that nothing will ever be enough, that no matter how much of himself he gives over to this book, no one will fully understand his experience. He knows this because he has spent pages upon pages trying to consume other peoples’ stories himself, and he’s left feeling incomplete and guilty, as if he hasn’t succeeded in fully capturing or portraying the people he has written about. In the face of this failure, he offers himself up as a sacrifice of sorts, declaring that he is willing to undergo the same kind of “cannibalism” to which he has subjected his loved ones.
Themes
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Death, Humor, and the Worst-Case Scenario Theme Icon
Guilt and Poetic License Theme Icon