A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius


Dave Eggers

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A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius Summary

Eggers is twenty-one and living in Lake Forrest, Illinois as his mother dies of stomach cancer. After multiple operations, she has reached a critical stage and decided that she never wants to return to the hospital. As she lies on the couch watching TV, Eggers tries with his sister Beth to cater to her needs while also taking care of his little brother, Toph, who is only seven years old. Toph does what he can to stay out of the way, spending most of his time in the basement playing videogames. Apparently, Eggers’s father died just several weeks ago. He too had cancer, but his illness emerged much more suddenly and progressed rapidly, ultimately striking him down one morning without warning.

The oncologist treating Eggers’s mother has informed the family that under no circumstances can she start bleeding. Because her white blood cell count is low, even a minor cut could be fatal. As Eggers sits and watches TV with her on New Year’s Eve, his mother gets a nosebleed that they’re unable to stop. Pinching her nose, he tries not to worry about the fact that this situation could escalate quickly. Worse, he and Beth have promised they won’t take her back to the hospital. Before long, though, it becomes clear that her nosebleed won’t stop, and Eggers and Beth finally persuade her to let them bring her in. Together, the family goes to the emergency room, where Eggers’s mother spends the night before going into intensive care for a day. After this, she rests in a large room that Beth calls “the death room.” As she sleeps, Beth and Eggers lie on an adjacent bed with Toph. During this time, Eggers thinks about his father’s funeral, remembering what it felt like to listen to the minister talk and how he snuck away later that night to have sex with his girlfriend, Kirsten. Back in the present, Eggers and Beth remember that the next day is their mother’s birthday.

Eggers’s mother is released from the hospital. At home, Eggers and Beth hire full-time care, but she still deteriorates quickly. Eventually, anything she says seems like it could be the last sentence she’ll ever speak. After many visitors and phone calls, she passes away under heavy sedation. Soon after, Eggers and Beth sell the house and most of their furniture and move to Berkeley, California, where Beth begins law school and they all sublet a house for the summer in the hills with a view of the San Francisco Bay.

In California, Eggers takes primary responsibility for Toph, though Beth helps. The two brothers form a close bond, and Eggers makes it his goal to create a life of happiness and possibility for Toph. A combination of a brother and a guardian, he drives fast and blasts music, wanting Toph to know that they are “collecting on” what they’re “owed.” “We are owed, goddamnit,” he says, singing at the top of his lungs and making sure Toph understands that “in this world, in [their] new world, there will be rocking.” For the entire summer, Eggers and Toph focus on having fun. Living on the money they made from selling the family home—plus the government assistance Toph receives—they go to the beach every day and throw the Frisbee, catching it in elaborate ways that attract crowds.

By summer’s end, reality crashes down on Eggers. Because they have to move out of their sublet, he realizes how hard it is to find affordable housing in an area close to the school Toph will be attending. Worse, no one wants to rent property to them, since they don’t fit into the stereotype of financially stable or responsible tenants. Desperate, Eggers eventually offers to pay a year’s worth of rent upfront to live in a small single-story house in a sleepy Berkeley neighborhood, and the landlord accepts.

During this period, Eggers tries to strike a balance between his role as Toph’s guardian and his life as a young bachelor. He and Toph live together like roommates, their home messy and disorganized, their eating habits strange and unbalanced. Nonetheless, Eggers is a good caretaker. When he goes to Toph’s school for an open house, though, he finds himself feeling uncomfortable because all of the parents cast odd glances at him, trying to determine his relationship to Toph.

Not only does Eggers’s youth make him somewhat of an outcast at school functions, but his role as a guardian also impedes upon his social life. He has trouble finding the time to get away from the house, and comes to savor his nights out with friends, who don’t understand what it’s like to have other responsibilities.

Around this time, Eggers works as a temp while also doing freelance design work. Eventually, he and his friend Moodie start Might, a magazine created “by and for” “twentysomethings.” The publication is snarky, parodying commercial magazines and popular culture. Using some of his inheritance, Eggers secures an office space for Might, and the burgeoning company puts out calls for interns and writers. They’re surprised to find that they receive multiple responses, as young people in San Francisco (and beyond) are excited about working for a publication with an anti-establishment ethos.

While Eggers and Moodie are launching Might, the MTV series The Real World comes to San Francisco and puts out a casting call. Although Might publishes a piece making fun of the show, Eggers is attracted to the idea of joining the cast, so he mails in an audition tape and—to his surprise—is invited to come for an interview. When he arrives, he sits down with a producer named Laura, who asks him increasingly pointed personal questions. Eggers represents their conversation as a transcript, but it soon becomes clear that his account has strayed from reality. “This isn’t really a transcript of the interview, is it?” Laura asks at one point, breaking out of character and confirming that Eggers is using this interview format as “a catchall for a bunch of anecdotes that would be too awkward to force together otherwise.” Eggers then continues explaining what it was like growing up in Lake Forest, talking about everything from his parents’ deaths to the racial and socioeconomic demographics of his hometown. Several days later, he learns that he hasn’t been cast on The Real World because, although his story is sad, Laura and her team had already heard multiple stories like it, and they can only have one sad suburban-raised white man on the show.

Despite this rejection, Eggers eventually makes it onto an episode of The Real World because Judd—the person who was chosen in place of him—is an artist who submits his drawings to Might. Thinking they’ll get good publicity if they appear on the show (which is ostensibly the reason Eggers wanted to go on in the first place), they invite Judd to the offices and talk idealistically in front of the cameras, ultimately producing an eight-second clip that airs nationally.

Might eventually moves to a larger office space paid for by the people who hire Eggers and Moodie to do freelance design work. Despite this fancier setting, the magazine still isn’t making money, and Eggers begins to feel disheartened. He never wanted a job, he notes, and Might is beginning to feel like more of a chore than a labor of love. Plus, his duties as Toph’s guardian continue, making it hard for him to juggle the life of an ambitious magazine editor. He and Toph soon move out of their current house and into the city, but this does little to change Eggers’s sinking feeling about his career. What’s more, his personal life is rather chaotic, and he’s constantly reminded of death and misfortune. One reason for this is that his childhood friend John, who also now lives in San Francisco, is severely depressed and often contemplates suicide. One night, John says he’s going to purposefully overdose on pills, so Eggers rushes over and calls the police, who then call the paramedics, who take him to the hospital to have his stomach pumped. All the while, Eggers stands by, waiting in the hospital lobby and thinking about how he’ll write about this experience and if it’s fair for him to tell someone else’s intimate story.

In addition to John’s suicide attempt, Eggers is forced to confront the idea of disaster when he begins to pass a kidney stone while at work. When people finally notice him writhing on the floor, his friend Shalini takes him to the hospital. Later, Shalini endures a head injury after falling off a collapsed deck, and Eggers has the opportunity to visit her in the hospital, coming frequently to check on her as she remains in a coma for a long time. Even though she eventually wakes up, her short-term memory never recovers.

All of these near-death experiences force Eggers to confront his past, and he begins to feel guilty about the fact that he and Beth never tracked down their parents’ ashes. When he returns to Lake Forest for a wedding, he decides to revisit places and people from his past, ultimately making his way to the funeral home where his parents’ services were held. When he gets there, he asks if they have any paperwork that might document where his parents’ remains were sent. The young man working at the funeral home goes downstairs to look, and when he returns, he’s carrying a cardboard box containing the ashes of Eggers’s mother. Shocked, Eggers takes the box and makes his way to Lake Michigan, where he spreads his mother’s remains in the water, all the while questioning if this is something she’d actually want him to do. After his trip to Illinois, he goes back to California and decides to stop publishing Might and move to New York with Toph, who gamely says that he believes “it’s good to move around, see stuff, not get stuck.”