A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The summer ends and Eggers tries to find a new place to live with Toph. This is harder than he expected, because real estate agents are quick to judge him. “Where do you work?” they ask, and Eggers admits that he hasn’t found a job yet. “And this is your…son?” they ask, and when he tells them Toph is his brother, it becomes clear they won’t rent their property to such an untraditional pair. Slowly, Eggers begins to accept the grim reality that they won’t be able to live anywhere as glamorous as the sublet. Because he and Kirsten need time apart and neither he nor Beth want to live together anymore, he’s on his own in this hunt for an apartment. And although he has always envisioned living in a loft, he realizes this simply isn’t an option.
For perhaps the first time, Eggers finds himself inhibited by his responsibility as Toph’s caretaker. Whereas the summer was easygoing and fun, now reality is beginning to intrude upon his sense that he and Toph are “owed” by the world because of the hardships they’ve already endured. In effect, this means giving up dreams of having a bachelor-style loft. Worse, he finds it hard to overcome the ways in which people judge him, since in this case their judgements affect whether or not he and Toph will find good housing. Unlike his experience with the mothers at Toph’s baseball games, now it’s harder to disregard the fact that people don’t know what to make of him as a guardian.
Themes
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Finally, in August, Eggers finds a small single-story house in Berkeley. “I’m worried about your lack of a job,” the landlord says, but Eggers says he can pay the entire year’s rent upfront, and this seals the deal. This, Eggers recognizes, is not a financially savvy move, but he is desperate to find a place. Plus, he and Beth have decided that they will no longer feel guilty about spending money. Whereas their parents were “tight-fisted” with their earnings, Eggers and Beth have decided that they’re “done sacrificing.”
Eggers and Beth are in a unique position. Having watched their parents raise them, they’ve internalized their worldviews and can now (ostensibly) choose which ones they want to actually use while raising Toph. By spotlighting their decision to disregard the “tight-fisted” financial mentality of their parents, Eggers shows readers that the finer details of parenthood are like traditions that people can either uphold or cast aside.
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Toph and Eggers repaint the house, making each room a different color. “The place is ours now,” he writes, “but it’s a mess.” Neither he nor Toph ever clean, so the coffee table is strewn with trash, there are packages of half-eaten food on the floor, and sports equipment is littered throughout the house. Eggers has vague worries about health inspectors paying them a visit and taking Toph away, but this doesn’t motivate him to do any actual cleaning. Instead, he tries to convince Toph to clean, but this only devolves into an argument about who “sucks” more. Because they’re more interested in goofing around with one another, it feels like an incredible feat when they actually do something, like make sure Toph arrives at school on time, which almost never happens.
Eggers isn’t afraid to present himself as a somewhat irresponsible guardian. In many ways, he does almost nothing that might resemble traditional parenthood. This is, of course, because he isn’t Toph’s parent—he’s his older brother. At the same time, though, he’s responsible for Toph. As such, he displays the tension between his two identities: he’s both a guardian with a huge responsibility and a young bachelor who wants to have fun. By not shying away from portraying himself as the latter, Eggers suggests that a person doesn’t have to conform to conventional notions of guardianship to successfully raise a child.
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Eggers has been working for a temp agency that sends him to various companies for two- or three-day assignments. Beth—who is in her first year of law school—picks Toph up every day and brings him to her apartment until Eggers can retrieve him, at which point the two brothers go home and cook one of their eight go-to meals. These dishes are mostly combinations of pre-cooked foods and easy recipes, but they like them nonetheless. As they cook, they often have “sword fights using wooden spoons or sticks.” Recently, they have taken to spitting water at one another. “There is a voice inside me, a very excited, chirpy voice, that urges me to keep things merry, madcap even, the mood buoyant,” Eggers writes. Beth, on the other hand, frequently cries and makes Toph look at photo albums so that he remembers what their parents look like.
Once again, Eggers makes it clear that he wants to cultivate a happy, optimistic environment for Toph. Fearing that his brother will become depressed because of the loss of their parents, he fills their life with goofy boyishness, constantly roughhousing and playing with Toph. And while this might not seem like a valid way of taking on responsibility, it’s worth noting that Eggers does this for the sake of his brother’s mental health.
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Toph and Eggers arrive late to the open house at Toph’s school. Eggers curses, blaming Toph for their tardiness despite the fact that he was the one whose nap ran too long. He tells Toph to go get changed, but when his brother emerges in a stained sweatshirt, he instructs him to wear something nicer. When they finally get to the school, though, they’re both overdressed. “This is our first open house,” Eggers writes, “and people are not sure what to make of us.” Children and parents stare at them, trying to figure them out. “They are scared,” Eggers writes. “They are jealous.” Then, with a change of heart, he adds, “We are pathetic. We are stars. We are either sad and sickly or we are glamorous and new.” As they make their way through the crowd, Eggers thinks about how they are “disadvantaged but young and virile.”
Again, Eggers is sensitive to the ways in which he and Toph are different than other families. These differences are on display at the open house, especially since he and Toph are overdressed. Still, Eggers manages to maintain his optimism and his youthful pride, though he oscillates between feeling out of place and feeling “glamorous.” This, it seems, is the dynamic that will follow him throughout his years as Toph’s guardian.
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Related Quotes
Thinking about his own youth, Eggers is appalled to see how old and boring the parents are at the open house. He and Toph, on the other hand, are “great-looking.” “We are new and everyone else is old,” he notes. “We are the chosen ones, obviously.” All of the other adults at the open house, he suggests, are “crinkly and no longer have random sex, as only [Eggers] among them [is] still capable of.”
Rather than wallowing and feeling isolated as a young person in a sea of middle-aged parents, Eggers chooses to exalt his youth, celebrating the fact that he can still enjoy the life of a bachelor while also serving as Toph’s guardian. Once again, he insinuates that a person doesn’t need to adhere to the conventions of traditional parenthood in order to raise a child.
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A woman approaches Eggers at the open house and begins a conversation that he has had so many times that he decides to represent it in his book as a play script. Fumbling through the initial questions (“This is…your son?”), this woman eventually learns that Toph and Eggers are brothers. “You go to school at Cal?” she asks, and when he says that he already finished school, she asks if he lives with his “folks.” He informs her that he and Toph live alone, and she says, “But…where are your parents?” Eggers tries to think of a vague response, something like “They’re not here.” Instead, he says, “Oh, they died a few years ago.” Hearing this, the woman grabs his forearm and says, “Oh, I’m sorry.”
For Eggers, part of serving as Toph’s guardian means having to deal with what other people think of their situation. In this moment, he shows readers that sympathy from strangers rarely does much to soothe a person. In fact, it often is more of a burden than anything else, since conversations like the one Eggers has at the open house force him to talk about painful memories in undesirable circumstances.
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Once this mother has learned the details of Eggers and Toph’s living arrangement, she asks how their parents died. Eggers considers telling her something outrageous just to entertain himself and Toph, as he has done before, but he’s never sure whether or not Toph finds this funny. “Cancer,” he says. “But…at the same time?” asks the mother, to which Eggers says, “About five weeks apart.” When she asks how long ago this happened, he’s pleased to be able to say, “A few winters ago,” since this is a “new line” that puts a “comfortable distance” between him and the tragic events. At this point, the mother says the line that everyone seems to say at this point in the conversation: “What a good brother you are!” Although this phrase annoys Eggers, he simply shrugs and says, “Well, what are you gonna do?”
The worst part about these superficial conversations is that they force Eggers to say vapid things that ultimately trivialize his experience. When this mother at the open house says, “What a good brother you are!” he has no choice but to shrug and say, “Well, what are you gonna do?” In turn, he ends up talking about this very difficult experience like it’s a mere inconvenience. By showcasing the ways in which conversations like these aren’t appropriate for discussing such serious matters, Eggers illustrates the gulf of misunderstanding between someone like him and someone like this mother. Although she means well, she does nothing but annoy Eggers, forcing him to be polite as he talks about the hardest thing he’s ever experienced in his life.
Themes
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Death, Humor, and the Worst-Case Scenario Theme Icon
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