Because his parents die within five weeks of one another, Dave Eggers becomes well-acquainted with death, recognizing it as unavoidable and commonplace. However, this realistic outlook doesn’t help him come to terms with death in any sort of practical way. Although he projects an outward display of optimism that often carries him through difficult times, the experience of watching his parents die has profoundly altered the way he sees the world. More often than not, he finds himself morbidly fantasizing about the worst-case scenario. He imagines his car careening off cliffs, envisions babysitters killing and mutilating Toph, and frets that he has contracted AIDS and will die before reaching thirty. Large sections of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius detail these invented catastrophes, as Eggers creates increasingly absurd disaster scenarios. In fact, his fears are often so lavish and ridiculous that they become comedic, and readers have no choice but to laugh at Eggers’s grandiose depictions of horror. In other words, Eggers’s florid descriptions of disaster end up subverting themselves, their obvious humor undermining (or trivializing) the author’s genuine fear of death. By diluting his terror with humor, then, Eggers proves that even the most serious fears can be reframed to seem more manageable.
Eggers is only twenty-one when he loses both of his parents. Unsurprisingly, as a result he becomes keenly aware of the fact that death is inevitable. What’s more, he understands how powerless humans are when it comes to mortality. If a person is going to die, there’s only so much that doctors can do to save them. This is the case for Eggers’s mother, who suffers a painful battle with stomach cancer and endures countless operations before eventually succumbing to her inevitable end. Having witnessed this process, Eggers comes to reject the various narratives people superimpose upon death to make it seem easier to process. For instance, he dismisses the idea of “dying with dignity,” saying: “You will die, and when you die, you will know a profound lack of [dignity]. It’s never dignified, always brutal.” By saying this, he reveals his blunt and bleak perspective, insisting upon speaking straightforwardly about death instead of trying to soften its blow. Dying, he says, is “brutal,” a word that frames mortality as unforgiving and overwhelming. “Dignity is an affectation,” he adds, going on to say that it is “fleeting and incredibly mercurial.” These wishy-washy attributes, he intimates, don’t have anything to do with death, which is a sober and painful reality. And according to Eggers, sugarcoating this reality won’t make it easier in the end.
Despite Eggers’s belief that the brutality of death can’t be softened, he still tries to lighten the mood when his mother is in her final weeks. He does this by making jokes, trying to add some cheerfulness to this otherwise miserable situation. For example, when a doctor warns Eggers that his mother absolutely cannot start bleeding because her blood can’t clot, Eggers kids, saying, “No more knife fights. No more knife throwing.” The doctor ignores him. “This doctor does not joke much,” he notes. “Some of the nurses do. It is our job to joke with the doctors and nurses.” It’s worth noting that Eggers sees it as his duty to “joke with the doctors and nurses,” as if this is a necessary part of helping his mother through her illness. However, it seems that he tells jokes primarily for himself, hoping to make it easier to deal with the eventual loss of his parent. “I know that I should joke in the face of adversity,” he writes, “there is always humor, we are told. But in the last few weeks, we haven’t found much. We have been looking for funny things, but have found very little.” Humor, Eggers asserts, is a vital part of coping with “adversity.” At the same time, he also admits that it’s sometimes hard to find “funny things” in the midst of sadness.
After Eggers’s mother dies, he develops a new way of confronting the idea of mortality: he concentrates on the worst-case scenario. Focusing on all the ways death might touch him, he obsessively spins tales of potential chaos and tragedy. For instance, after leaving Toph with a babysitter named Stephen one night, Eggers goes out for a night on the town. Although he’s excited for this evening of freedom, it isn’t long before he vividly imagines the ways in which Stephen might harm or kill Toph. “I become convinced,” he writes, “in a flash of pure truth-seeing—it happens every time I leave him anywhere—that Toph will be killed. Of course. The baby-sitter was acting peculiar, was too quiet, too unassuming. His eyes had plans.” Thinking this way, Eggers pictures of a flurry of terrifying possibilities, including “handcuffs, floorboards, clown suits, leather, videotape, duct tape, knives, bathtubs, refrigerators.” As Eggers strides into what should be a fun, carefree evening, he finds himself envisioning Toph’s demise, his imagination tormenting him with highly specific horrors. Although this thought process is disturbing and twisted, the way Eggers presents it bears a touch of morbid humor. The details he provides are so specific and odd that they seem absurd and start to lose their credibility. In this way, he manages to upend his own worries, revealing their irrationality even as he permits himself to be afraid. By running through the worst-case scenario, he acknowledges the ever-present potential for death and misfortune while also managing to go on despite these possibilities. Nothing, it seems, can sugarcoat the reality of death, so Eggers chooses to do the opposite, allowing himself to catastrophize until any kind of actual misfortune seems comparatively tame.
Death, Humor, and the Worst-Case Scenario ThemeTracker
Death, Humor, and the Worst-Case Scenario Quotes in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
[…] an incomparable loss begets both constant struggle and heart-hardening, but also some unimpeachable rewards, starting with absolute freedom, interpretable and of use in a number of ways. And though it seems inconceivable to lose both parents in the space of 32 days […] and to lose them to completely different diseases (cancer, sure, but different enough, in terms of location, duration, and provenance), that loss is accompanied by an undeniable but then of course guilt-inducing sense of mobility, of infinite possibility, having suddenly found oneself in a world with neither floor nor ceiling.
[The author] is fully cognizant, way ahead of you, in terms of knowing about and fully admitting the gimmickry inherent in all this, and will preempt your claim of the book’s irrelevance due to said gimmickry by saying that the gimmickry is simply a device, a defense, to obscure the black, blinding, murderous rage and sorrow at the core of this whole story, which is both too black and blinding to look at—avert…your…eyes!—but nevertheless useful, at least to the author, even in caricatured or condensed form, because telling as many people as possible about it helps, he thinks, to dilute the pain and bitterness and thus facilitate its flushing from his soul […].
This part concerns the unshakable feeling one gets, one thinks, after the unthinkable and unexplainable happens—the feeling that, if this person can die, and that person can die, and this can happen and that can happen…well, then, what exactly is preventing everything from happening to this person, he around whom everything else happened? If people are dying, why won’t he? If people are shooting people from cars, if people are tossing rocks down from overpasses, surely he will be the next victim. If people are contracting AIDS, odds are he will, too.
I’ll keep sharp objects out of proximity, I had joked to the doctor. The doctor did not chuckle. I wondered if he had heard me. I considered repeating it, but then figured that he had probably heard me but had not found it funny. But maybe he didn’t hear me. I thought briefly, then, about supplementing the joke somehow, pushing it over the top, so to speak, with the second joke bringing the first one up and creating a sort of one-two punch. No more knife fights, I might say. No more knife throwing, I might offer, heh heh. But this doctor does not joke much. Some of the nurses do. It is our job to joke with the doctors and nurses. It is our job to listen to the doctors, and after listening to the doctors, Beth usually asks the doctors specific questions […] and sometimes I ask a question, and then we might add some levity and a witty aside. I know that I should joke in the face of adversity; there is always humor, we are told. But in the last few weeks, we haven’t found much. We have been looking for funny things, but have found very little.
Would we have enough towels? God no. We could use sheets, we have plenty of sheets— It might be only a few hours. Would that be enough time? What’s enough time? We would talk a lot. Yes. We would sum up. Would we be serious, sober, or funny? We would be serious for a few minutes— Okay okay okay okay. Fuck, what if we ran out of things to say and— We’ve already made the necessary arrangements. Yes, yes, we wouldn’t need to talk details. We’d have Toph come up. Would we have Toph come up? Of course, but… oh he shouldn’t be there, should he? Who wants to be there at the very end? No one, no one. But for her to be alone…of course she won’t be alone, you’ll be there, Beth’ll be there, dumb-ass. Fuck.
Only here are you almost sure that you are careening on top of a big shiny globe, blurrily spinning—you are never aware of these things in Chicago, it being so flat, so straight—and and and we have been chosen, you see, chosen, and have been given this, it being owed to us, earned by us, all of this—the sky is blue for us, the sun makes passing cars twinkle like toys for us, the ocean undulates and churns for us, murmurs and coos to us. We are owed, see this is ours, see.
It’s an effort […] to let him know, if it weren’t already obvious, that as much as I want to carry on our parents’ legacy, he and I will also be doing some experimenting. And constantly entertaining, like some amazing, endless telethon. There is a voice inside me, a very excited, chirpy voice, that urges me to keep things merry, madcap even, the mood buoyant. Because Beth is always pulling out old photo albums, crying, asking Toph how he feels, I feel I have to overcompensate by keeping us occupied. I am making our lives a music video, a game show on Nickelodeon—lots of quick cuts, crazy camera angles, fun, fun, fun! It’s a campaign of distraction and revisionist history—leaflets dropped behind enemy lines, fireworks, funny dances, magic tricks.
You know, to be honest, though, what I see is less a problem with form, all that garbage, and more a problem of conscience. You’re completely paralyzed with guilt about relating all this in the first place, especially the stuff earlier on. You feel somehow obligated to do it, but you also know that Mom and Dad would hate it, would crucify you […]. But then again, I should say, and Bill and Beth would say—well, probably not Bill, but definitely Beth—that your guilt, and their disapproval, is a very middlebrow, middle-class, midwestern sort of disapproval. It’s superstition as much as anything—like the primitives who fear the camera will take their soul. You struggle with a guilt both Catholic and unique to the home in which you were raised. Everything there was a secret—for instance, your father being in AA was not to be spoken of, ever, while he was in and after he stopped attending. You never told even your closest friends about anything that happened inside that house. And now you alternately rebel against and embrace that kind of suppression.
Anyway, with me you have this amazing chance to right the wrongs of your own upbringing, you have an opportunity to do everything better—to carry on those traditions that made sense and to jettison those that didn’t—which is something every parent has the chance to do, of course, to show up one’s own parents, do everything better, to upwardly evolve from them—but in this case, it’s even more heightened, means so much more, because you get to do this with me, their own progeny.
Then, at the moment that I am turning the corner, I become convinced, in a flash of pure truth-seeing—it happens every time I leave him anywhere—that Toph will be killed. Of course. The baby-sitter was acting peculiar, was too quiet, too unassuming. His eyes had plans. Of course. So obvious from the beginning. I ignored the signals. Toph had told me Stephen was weird, repeatedly had mentioned his scary laugh, the veggie food he brought and cooked, and I just shrugged it all off. If something happens it’ll be my fault. He will try bad things on Toph. He will try to molest Toph. While Toph is sleeping he will do something with wax and rope. The possibilities snap through my head like pedophilia flashcards—handcuffs, floorboards, clown suits, leather, videotape, duct tape, knives, bathtubs, refrigerators—
Toph will never wake up.
[…] maybe they’d just be sitting around, at Moodie’s usually, watching cable, getting ready, and I would be there, on the couch, with a beer from the fridge, savoring every minute, not knowing when it would come again, and they would be casual, having no idea what it meant to me, even when I’d be a little manic about it all, a little overeager, laughing too much, drinking too quickly, getting another from the fridge, no problem, okay, hoping for something to happen, hoping we’d go somewhere good, anything to make the night count, make it worth it, justify the constant red/black worry, the visions—I felt so detached sometimes, went for weeks at a time without really being around people my age, like living in a country where no one understands your words[.]
You wouldn’t believe what people will believe once they know our story. They’re ready for anything, basically—will believe anything, because they’ve been thrown off-balance, are still wondering if any of this is true, our story in general, but aren’t sure and are terrified of offending us.
While the ill are ill, if you can be there you should be there. I know these things. Bizarre, self-sacrificing gestures are important. On days that you cannot possibly come visit, you must visit. When you get home one night, and Toph says, “So, are you going to pretend to be a parent tonight, or what?”—which he means as a kind of joke, because you two have been eating fast food for weeks, and you’ve been napping on the couch every night after dinner—you should take a breath and know that this is okay, that this sort of thing, this struggle and sacrifice, is essential, that he does not understand but someday will.
The idea, I suppose, is the emotional equivalent of a drug binge, the tossing together of as much disparate and presumably incompatible stimuli as possible, in a short span, five days, together constituting a sort of socio-familial archaeological bender, to see what comes of it, how much can be dredged up, brought back, remembered, exploited, excused, pitied, made known, made permanent.
I had loved how vague it was before. Where are they? Well, that’s a good question. Where were they buried? Another interesting question. That was the beauty of my father’s way. We knew that he had been diagnosed, but not how sick he was. We knew that he was in the hospital, but then not how close he was. It had always felt strangely appropriate, and his departure was made complete, as was hers, by the fact that the ashes never found us in California, that we had moved, and moved again, and again, dodging, weaving.