Pointing out that A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius isn’t a “work of pure nonfiction,” Eggers reveals that most of the book’s dialogue has been “reconstructed” by memory and reformulated by his imagination, though he maintains that the essence of the recorded conversations remain “essentially true.” He notes that, oddly enough, the most “surreal dialogue” in the book is perhaps the most “true to life.”
When A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was first published, many authors were writing memoirs. Perhaps because of the genre’s sudden trendiness, Eggers goes out of his way to point out that his book isn’t a purely factual recreation of reality. Instead of suggesting that his memoir is an exact account of everything that has happened to him, he embraces the faultiness of memory, asserting that something can still be “essentially true” even if it has been approximated and “reconstructed” in a semi-fictional form.
Eggers also goes out of his way to state that although the characters in his memoir are based on real people, some of their names have been changed to preserve anonymity. The character John, for instance, isn’t actually named John in real life, but Eggers’s friend asked that his name be omitted from the manuscript because he didn’t want “the dark portions of his life chronicled.” This character, Eggers asserts, is somewhat of an “amalgam,” and in order to fully keep his friend’s identity a secret, he had to make other alterations, creating a “domino effect.” For example, John and a character named Meredith Weiss are quite close in this book, but this isn’t the case in real life—Eggers simply had Meredith play someone else’s role so that no one would be able to identify John by association.
By commenting on the veracity of his story, Eggers calls readers’ attention to his narrative style. Before the story has even begun, he emphasizes his role as the author—a role he believes grants him the poetic license he needs to narrate his tale without harming any of the people he’s writing about. In turn, his eagerness to establish or justify this kind of narrative flexibility suggests that he feels guilty about altering the facts of reality for his own purposes, though he clearly doesn’t feel bad enough about this to not do it. Instead, he decides to acknowledge the complexities that come along with writing a memoir, ultimately making these considerations part of the story itself.
Eggers admits he has compressed various timelines in order to better represent his story. He also takes a moment to make sure readers know that he had to omit a large amount of material, including several “really great sex scenes” that might embarrass the people involved. In fact, there were also a handful of other scenes Eggers had to delete from his manuscript, so he takes a moment to include these passages in the preface—the scenes themselves are largely difficult to follow, since they were originally intended to appear in the middle of the book. They detail, variously: Eggers watching his mother in the hospital while lying on an extra bed with his sister Beth and little brother Toph; Eggers’s botched attempt to paint a portrait of his friend’s dead father; and Eggers’s fear of death, which culminates in a story about a near-death experience in the Amazon.
For the most part, Eggers’s tone is glib and sarcastic in the preface. However, by including sections that didn’t make it into the actual text, he foreshadows some of the book’s most prominent focal points, including his mother’s death, his relationship with his brother, and his own fear of death. As such, he manages to use his meta-narrative style to actually advance the story itself, surprising readers by hiding valuable thematic content in sections that might otherwise seem insubstantial.