A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius Chapter 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Eggers and Toph speed along Highway 1 in California, winding along the coast and listening to loud music. He feels as if he and his little brother are “collecting on what’s coming” to them, since he’s convinced that life “owes” them “with interest,” which is why they are “expecting everything, everything.” They have nowhere to be, he notes, so they’re driving and singing as loud as they can. As they drive, Toph makes faces at people in passing cars, and Eggers lets him steer as he takes off his sweatshirt, feeling all the while that Toph has now become his “twenty-four-hour classroom,” his “captive audience, forced to ingest everything [he]  deem[s] worthwhile.” “We have been chosen, you see, chosen,” he says, “and have been given this, it being owed to us, earned by us, all of this.”
Having watched his parents die, Eggers feels oddly free. After all, he has dealt with something terrible, and now he has his whole life ahead of him. He’s only twenty-one, has money from the house that he and Beth sold, and can spend his days driving scenic routes with Toph. Of course, all of this is undercut by hardship, but Eggers chooses to assume an optimistic worldview, one in which he and Toph “have been given” the opportunity to make their lives anew. This, he believes, is “owed” to them because of all they have just experienced.
Themes
Coming of Age, Parenthood, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Death, Humor, and the Worst-Case Scenario Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Eggers and Toph live with Kirsten, Beth, and Beth’s friend in a sublet overlooking the Bay. Their lease only extends until the end of summer, but Eggers has decided there’s no rush to find a job. Instead, he spends time with Toph, trying to make life seem fun and happy. Despite this positive attitude, though, he can’t help but imagine disaster scenarios. For instance, when they drive down Highway 1, he feels like each oncoming car could kill them. “The possibilities leap into my head,” he writes. “We could be driven off the cliff and down and into the ocean. But fuck, we’d make it, Toph and I, given our cunning, our agility, our presence of mind.” He imagines sailing off the cliff and, in perfect coordination with Toph, opening the doors, standing on the roof of the car, and jumping off right as the car splashes into the water.
It’s unsurprising that Eggers often imagines disastrous situations, given that he has actually experienced what many people would consider a worst-case scenario: the nearly simultaneous death of both his parents. However, the way he thinks about these possibilities is worth examining. For example, when he imagines his car being “driven off the cliff,” his fears take on a comic-book style grandeur, becoming caricatures of real life. Indeed, by rendering his fears in this absurd manner, he finds it easier to recognize how unlikely it is that they’ll actually happen. Further, he often finds himself capable of subverting these fears, as when he imagines Toph and himself surviving this crash like a couple of action movie stars.
Themes
Death, Humor, and the Worst-Case Scenario Theme Icon
Toph joins a Little League baseball team, so Eggers spends many of his afternoons sitting on the sidelines and watching him play. As he does so, he becomes sharply aware of the fact that he doesn’t fit in with the mothers who are watching their sons. “I do not know how to interact with the mothers,” he writes. “Am I them?” Sometimes they make an effort to include him, but mostly he sits off to the side and smiles at their jokes. “Fuck it,” he thinks. “I don’t want to be friends with these women, anyway. Why would I care? I am not them. They are the old model and we are the new.”
As a twenty-one-year-old responsible for a seven-year-old, Eggers is in an interesting position. He’s not Toph’s parent, but he finds himself in situations in which he must act like he is. Moreover, he intuits that people don’t know what to make of him. In turn, he questions himself, here wondering if he belongs at baseball games among the other players’ middle-aged mothers. He doesn’t beat himself up about his inability to integrate into the social world of parenthood. Instead, he chooses to celebrate the fact that he’s a nonconventional guardian, declaring that he and Toph are the “new model” of a family.
Themes
Coming of Age, Parenthood, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Eggers explains that he, Beth, and Toph left Chicago quickly, selling almost everything in the house. Now, everyone living in the sublet is “vibrating with the stress of the sundry adjustments, new schools and jobs,” such that they all “quickly begin to snip and snap and complain.” This tension makes its way into Eggers and Kirsten’s relationship, especially because Kirsten—who doesn’t, like Eggers, have money from selling a house—refuses to let him help her financially, instead opting to find a job. Meanwhile, Eggers and Toph have fun, going to beaches to play Frisbee, a sport for which they have remarkable talent. People stop to watch them play, floored by their tricks. “Senior citizens sit and shake their heads, gasping. Religious people fall to their knees. No one has ever seen anything quite like it,” Eggers writes.
Despite the stress of surviving in a new city as a young adult, Eggers concentrates on cultivating a fun, lighthearted, happy environment for Toph. While Kirsten worries about getting a job, Eggers plays games with his little brother, and though this might seem immature, it’s worth bearing in mind that he’s trying to make this transition easier on Toph. As such, one might argue that he’s displaying a remarkable amount of responsibility, even if it seems like he’s just goofing around and not taking life seriously.
Themes
Self-Consciousness and Meta-Narration Theme Icon
Coming of Age, Parenthood, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Death, Humor, and the Worst-Case Scenario Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
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