A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius Chapter 9 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
At Might, Eggers and Moodie decide to run a fake celebrity obituary. They want to find someone willing to go along with their idea, but the people they contact refuse. Finally, Adam Rich—the former child star of Eight is Enough—agrees, and Eggers is ecstatic to have the opportunity to satirize celebrity eulogies. Toph, on the other hand, isn’t so sure. “To tell you the truth,” he says, “I think it’s kind of sick.” He suggests that Eggers is using Adam Rich to make a point. “You think he’s vapid, dim-witted, with his stupidity arising, first and foremost, from the fact that he is famous and you guys are not,” Toph says. “You’re breaking out of character again,” Eggers replies. Ignoring this, Toph accuses him of not being able to “stand the fact that this silly person, this Adam Rich person,” “has the gall to be a household name.”
In this scene, Eggers uses Toph as a vehicle to critique his own professional decisions. This, in turn, gives him the chance to voice his misgivings about the way he conducts himself at Might. While he and Moodie want to think of themselves as intellectually above someone like Adam Rich, the fictionalized version of Toph—and thus Eggers—is aware of the fact that they don’t actually believe this. Rather, their desire to make fun of celebrities in this way arises from their own insecurities and frustrations. After all, readers already know Eggers craves the attention that comes from being on TV, since he tried so hard to be on The Real World.
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Toph reminds Eggers of the time he and the other Might editors went to New York to interview “budding celebrities” so that they could “make fun of them” in print. He also brings up what Eggers did to Sari Locker, the sexologist he interviewed about her book Mindblowing Sex in the Real World. Apparently, Eggers went to dinner with Sari and talked to her about her book, all the while planning to make fun of her, “recording her words to later use against her.” At the same time, he also found himself attracted to Sari and tried to “get invited back to her apartment.” As Toph recounts this story, Eggers chimes in, saying that he almost went home with her. “And then you still went back and wrote a bitchy little thing about her,” Toph says.
Eggers does not shy away from publicly examining his flaws. Using Toph to talk about how poorly he treated Sari Locker, he presents himself as callous and imperfect. This is one of the reasons he employs meta-narrative techniques in his memoir, so that he can examine himself with an air of objectivity, making it easier to recognize even the most problematic parts of his personality.
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Eggers insists that Sari wasn’t offended by what he wrote, and Toph suggests that she’s probably just used to such things. “But don’t you see this is a kind of cannibalism?” he says. “That you’re just grabbing at people, toys from a box, dressing them up, taking them apart, ripping their heads off, discarding them—” Before Toph can finish, Eggers tells him that Sari is coming back to town and that he’s going to get together with her.
Although Toph doesn’t get to finish his point about Eggers engaging in a “kind of cannibalism,” the idea is worth keeping in mind, since Eggers—as a memoirist—consumes other peoples’ stories and uses them for his own narrative purposes. This is an idea that resurfaces later, especially regarding the guilt Eggers feels in writing about his friends and loved ones.
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Several days later, Toph comes home with school pictures. When he reveals them, Eggers is appalled—Toph is looking at the camera with a helpless, strange expression on his face, as if he’s desperately unhappy. To Eggers, the expression screams: “Look at my sad life, you people, you viewers of junior-high pictures! Class, teachers, see my eyes, which have seen too much! […] Save me from him because every night before dinner he’s asleep on the couch and so dead to the world, and when he can’t get up he tugs on my shirt and begs, he makes me cook for us and then later, once awake, he’s so tense, staring at the screen, writing something he won’t let me see, and he falls asleep in my bed and I have to push him out [...].”
Eggers’s reaction to Toph’s school pictures reflects his insecurities as an unconventional guardian. He constantly worries that people will judge him for not treating Toph the way a middle-aged parent might treat him. Of course, everyone has bad pictures taken of them at some point, but Eggers is so concerned about what other people think that he can’t see past what he believes is Toph’s unhappy facial expression.
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Around the same time that Eggers sees Toph’s school picture, Marny calls and tells him Shalini has been in an accident. “You know that deck that collapsed in Pacific Heights?” she asks. “She’s in a coma. She fell four stories and landed on her head. They don’t know if she’s going to make it.” Eggers rushes out of the house, worrying someone will do something to Toph in his absence. He picks up Marny and meets Moodie at the hospital, where they sit in the hallway and watch Shalini’s family come and go. Over the next few days, they come to know her mother. Every time they visit, they make sure to follow the unspoken code of visiting the sick: “We are not to smile, not to laugh, at anything, unless the family smiles or laughs first,” Eggers notes. “Most important, we too must suffer.”
Eggers is well-acquainted with the unspoken rules of visiting people in hospitals and interacting with their stressed, grieving families. Combined with John’s suicide scare, this event is a reminder to Eggers that terrible things are always possible. These occurrences only exacerbate his tendency to envision the worst-case scenario, forcing him to constantly consider that death is inevitable.
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Related Quotes
While Shalini is still in her coma, Eggers decides to bring her a teddy bear that he has kept in his car since his mother died. He believes “there is something of [his mother] in this bear,” and he can still hear the voice she used when she pretended to speak as the bear when he was a child. Taking it to Shalini, he wedges it between her arm and torso and steps back to look at her holding it, thinking that maybe this bear “will be magic” and “bring [her] back.”
Despite his frequent thoughts that death is always lurking around the corner, Eggers manages to show some optimism by believing in a certain kind of “magic.” This “magic” is laced with sentimentality, suggesting that the most powerful way to interact with a sick person is to lend them a sense of hope and empathy.
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On Sari Locker’s last night in town, Eggers drops Toph off at a bar mitzvah, then goes to the office to put the final touches on the Adam Rich story, which will include his “final interview” (an interview written by the Might staff). When he goes to pick up Toph from the downtown hotel—where the bar mitzvah was held—he can’t find him. He gets out of the car and runs inside, angry because he’s already late for his date with Sari. Apparently, Sari has to fly out later that night, so Eggers is extra frantic as he runs through the lobby and searches for Toph, going upstairs and downstairs multiple times before finally, after a long time, finding him in the lobby, of all places. Furious, he drops his little brother off at Beth’s and calls Sari from the lobby of her hotel.
Once more, Eggers shows readers the extent to which his role as Toph’s guardian clashes with his life as a young man hoping to maintain an active social (and love) life. Though Toph has reached a point where he’s able to take on certain responsibilities—like cooking or staying home by himself—he still depends on Eggers.
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Sari has to leave soon, but she agrees to meet Eggers in the lobby. As he waits for her, he feels bad about the fact that he “exploded” in the car, yelling at Toph and sounding like his parents used to when they were angry at him. When Sari arrives, they decide to go straight to Eggers’s house, where they start kissing and making their way to his bedroom. Just as they’re about to fall onto the bed, though, the door opens. “Oop,” Toph says, and backs out of the room. “What are you doing here?” Eggers asks, and Toph explains that Beth didn’t have any food, so she sent him back. In relative silence, Eggers drives Sari to the airport.
As Toph gets older, Eggers finds himself having to navigate a confusing dynamic. On the one hand, Toph is responsible enough to be on his own and independent enough to have his own plans, freeing Eggers to pursue a more active social life. On the other hand, he can’t fully adopt an active love life, since doing so would still require him to have more autonomy than he actually has. As such, he finds himself torn between two poles, still straddling his life as a guardian and as a young “twentysomething.”
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Eggers and the other Might editors continue working on the cover story about Adam Rich’s death. Meanwhile, Lance recruits a young actress named Skye Basset to represent the magazine in New York by taking meetings and planning east coast parties. Apparently, Skye was in the movie Dangerous Minds, though now she works almost full-time as a waitress while also going to auditions and—somehow—helping Might. “She is one of us, and with her, and with this Adam Rich thing, it really seems like we might be turning a corner here,” Eggers writes.
Eggers has already established that his work with Might magazine is beginning to fatigue him, but in this moment he seems to adopt a renewed vigor for the project. Indeed, he works to keep producing the magazine, branching out in ways that fuel the publication’s growth while still servicing his desire to remain a young, contrarian media outlet.
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Around this time, Marny and Eggers visit Shalini in the hospital and find her sitting up with her eyes open. The doctors tell them that she’s still technically in a coma, but they don’t let this curtail their joy. Sitting in the parking lot after the visit, Eggers asks Marny if she’d like to have sex—he feels fantastic and alive and hopeful, and suddenly sex is the only thing he can think about. “I think we should get back to the office,” she says. “She is right,” Eggers notes. “She is good. She never gets upset when I do this. It was a dumb idea, a revolting idea. All wrong. Bad!” Instead, he asks for a hug, and as they hug, he again thinks that they should have sex, but she releases him after a moment and they drive back to the office.
Again, Eggers doesn’t shy away from putting his embarrassing whims on display. For him, the fantastic news about Shalini waking up is cause for celebration, and this inspires him to proposition Marny. It’s worth noting that he asks her if she’d like to have sex while sitting in a car in the middle of the day—this isn’t the kind of situation that usually leads to random sex, but Eggers’s sudden urge is perhaps the result of his inability to have sexual encounters in the evenings, since Toph might walk in on him.
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Adam Rich agrees to visit San Francisco for the launch of his death story. The story has already attracted quite a lot of attention, since Eggers and Moodie sent a press release to the National Enquirer. Somehow, other publications got ahold of this press release, and Eggers and Moodie were unexpectedly flooded with media inquiries, reporters asking them about the specific details of Adam’s death (the cover story claims that he was murdered). Eventually, they have to admit to a producer that the story is a “hoax.” Still, the gossip spreads, and an AP reporter even visits Adam’s father. “Listen you guys,” Adam says. “This is way out of control. My relatives are fucking freaking out.” When the media discovers that it’s all a joke, they sink their teeth into Adam, accusing him of wanting attention.
In keeping with Toph’s notion that Eggers and Moodie are treating Adam Rich unfairly, the primary consequences of their cover story rain down not on them, but on Adam himself. While Might magazine gets to finally enjoy a moment of widespread attention, Adam has to endure mean-spirited accusations from media outlets that don’t actually care about him.
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