Eggers tells many stories about other people in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but he also feels guilty about this aspect of his project. First and foremost, he worries about what his parents would think of his decision to publicly recount their final days. He frets that they would hate him for putting their stories into the world, stories that don’t fully belong to him even though he was present as they unfolded. He also often feels guilty about the manner in which he tells a story, since he makes a vast number of approximations that serve his ends as a storyteller but don’t necessarily accurately represent the actions or emotions of the person about whom he’s writing. Despite all these insecurities, he continues writing his memoir, simply incorporating his misgivings into the book itself. As a result, he suggests that these concerns about who has the right to tell a story are important to the process of composition and not significant enough to prevent a writer from expressing him- or herself. Guilt, he intimates, is a natural part of life and something that is unavoidable when writing about others. As such, he grants himself the poetic license to tell these stories despite his hesitations.
Eggers blatantly addresses his feelings of guilt regarding the fact that he has told the story of his parents’ final days. In a meta-narrative conversation with Toph in which Toph transcends his role as a character and speaks directly to Eggers, Toph says: “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.” It’s worth mentioning that this passage appears 115 pages into the text, after Eggers has already very lucidly described the details of his mother’s sickly deterioration. Given this fact, it’s obvious that Eggers isn’t quite guilty enough about this matter to keep himself from writing about it in the first place. Instead, he decides to deal with his concerns within the actual book itself, allowing it to function as a device that actually strengthens the memoir. After all, this is perhaps the best way to turn his parents’ stories into his own: by highlighting his guilt and insecurities about narrating these tales, he directs the reader’s attention to himself.
Eggers’s meta-narrative conversation with Toph isn’t the only instance in which he grapples with the question of whether or not he has the right to tell someone else’s story. When he visits his friend John in the hospital after John has threatened suicide and had his stomach pumped, John tries to literally escape the narrative Eggers has created. John stands up and detaches himself from the various hospital machines, saying, “Screw it. I’m not going to be a fucking anecdote in your stupid book.” Protesting, Eggers rambles on about how John is “supposed to” stay in the hospital overnight, listing off the succession of events that took place in real life, when John was actually hospitalized. Nonetheless, this fictionalized version of John says, “I want no part of that. Find someone else to be symbolic of, you know, youth wasted or whatever.” In this scene, Eggers wrestles with the notion that he has enlisted his friends—real people—as “symbols” of things that are important to him but perhaps not relevant to their own lives. He feels guilty that he’s using other people for his own selfish ends. However, he quickly gets past this misgiving, saying, “Whatever. This is mine. You’ve given it to me.” Asserting his right to tell John’s story, Eggers communicates to readers that guilt is a necessary evil when it comes to the process of storytelling, one that can be overcome because—in the end—an author deserves the opportunity to express their experience and point of view.
In another conversation with John that takes place toward the end of the book, Eggers pinpoints what it is that enables him to ignore his guilt and take the poetic license necessary to tell someone else’s story. John is the one who articulates this, saying that Eggers is like a “cannibal” who is content to “devour” anyone whose story might serve his purpose. “You think that because you had things taken from you, that you can just take and take—everything.” According to this interpretation, Eggers gives himself an excuse to ignore feelings of guilt because of his belief that he is “owed” by the world. Thinking he deserves the best after all the hardship he went through with his parents, he allows himself to “cannibalize” stories that he might otherwise feel uncomfortable appropriating. In keeping with this metaphor, if he consumes other people, then they actually become part of him, thus giving him the right to retell their tales as his own. It is this kind of rationalization that makes Eggers willing to take poetic license. Furthermore, by putting this mental process on display, he simultaneously criticizes and rationalizes his decision to write about other people, once again making the matter about himself and thereby solidifying his authorial right.
Guilt and Poetic License ThemeTracker
Guilt and Poetic License 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.
“[…] I mean, it was almost as if it was too much to happen in one day, as if a number of days had been spliced together to quickly paint a picture of an entire period of time, to create a whole-seeming idea of how we are living, without having to stoop (or rise) to actually pacing the story out.”
“What are you getting at?”
“No, I think it’s good, it’s fine. Not entirely believable, but it works fine, in general. It’s fine.”
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.
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[.]
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.