A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: A Memoir Based on a True Story

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: A Memoir Based on a True Story

by Dave Eggers


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"This is a beautifully ragged, laugh-out-loud funny and utterly unforgettable book." —San Francisco Chronicle

National Bestseller 

Pulitzer Prize Finalist

A book that redefines both family and narrative for the twenty-first century. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is the moving memoir of a college senior who, in the space of five weeks, loses both of his parents to cancer and inherits his eight-year-old brother. Here is an exhilarating debut that manages to be simultaneously hilarious and wildly inventive as well as a deeply heartfelt story of the love that holds a family together.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is an instant classic that will be read for decades to come.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375725784
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/13/2001
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 73,424
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)
Lexile: 1050L (what's this?)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

Dave Eggers grew up near Chicago and graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the founder of McSweeney’s, an independent publishing house in San Francisco that produces books, a quarterly journal of new writing (McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern), and a monthly magazine, The Believer. McSweeney’s publishes Voice of Witness, a nonprofit book series that uses oral history to illuminate human rights crises around the world. In 2002, he co-founded 826 Valencia, a nonprofit youth writing and tutoring center in San Francisco’s Mission District. Sister centers have since opened in seven other American cities under the umbrella of 826 National, and like-minded centers have opened in Dublin, London, Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Birmingham, Alabama, among other locations. Eggers's work has been nominated for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and has won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, France’s Prix Médicis, Germany’s Albatross Prize, the National Magazine Award, and the American Book Award. Eggers lives in Northern California with his family. His novels include The Circle, A Hologram for the King, and Heroes of the Frontier.

Read an Excerpt


Through the small tall bathroom window the December yard is gray and scratchy, the trees calligraphic. Exhaust from the dryer billows clumsily out from the house and up, breaking apart while tumbling into the white sky.

The house is a factory.

I put my pants back on and go back to my mother. I walk down the hall, past the laundry room, and into the family room. I close the door behind me, muffling the rumbling of the small shoes in the dryer, Toph's.

"Where were you?" my mother says.

"In the bathroom," I say.

"Hmph," she says.


"For fifteen minutes?"

"It wasn't that long."

"It was longer. Was something broken?"


"Did you fall in?"


"Were you playing with yourself?"

"I was cutting my hair."

"You were contemplating your navel."

"Right. Whatever."

"Did you clean up?"


I had not cleaned up, had actually left hair everywhere, twisted brown doodles drawn in the sink, but knew that my mother would not find out. She could not get up to check.

My mother is on the couch. At this point, she does not move from the couch. There was a time, until a few months ago, when she was still up and about, walking and driving, running errands. After that there was a period when she spent most of her time in her chair, the one next to the couch, occasionally doing things, going out, whatnot. Finally she moved to the couch, but even then, for a while at least, while spending most of her time on the couch, every night at 11 p.m. or so, she had made a point of making her way up the stairs, in her bare feet, still tanned brown in November, slow and careful on the green carpet, to my sister's old bedroom. She had been sleeping there for years—the room was pink, and clean, and the bed had a canopy, and long ago she resolved that she could no longer sleep with my father's coughing.

But the last time she went upstairs was weeks ago. Now she is on the couch, not moving from the couch, reclining on the couch during the day and sleeping there at night, in her nightgown, with the TV on until dawn, a comforter over her, toe to neck. People know.

While reclining on the couch most of the day and night, on her back, my mom turns her head to watch television and turns it back to spit up green fluid into a plastic receptacle. The plastic receptacle is new. For many weeks she had been spitting the green fluid into a towel, not the same towel, but a rotation of towels, one of which she would keep on her chest. But the towel on her chest, my sister Beth and I found after a short while, was not such a good place to spit the green fluid, because, as it turned out, the green fluid smelled awful, much more pungent an aroma than one might expect. (One expects some sort of odor, sure, but this.)And so the green fluid could not be left there, festering and then petrifying on the terry-cloth towels. (Because the green fluid hardened to a crust on the terry-cloth towels, they were almost impossible to clean. So the green-fluid towels were one-use only, and even if you used every corner of the towels, folding and turning, turning and folding, they would only last a few days each, and the supply was running short, even after we plundered the bathrooms, closets, the garage.) So finally Beth procured, and our mother began to spit the green fluid into, a small plastic container which looked makeshift, like a piece of an air-conditioning unit, but had been provided by the hospital and was as far as we knew designed for people who do a lot of spitting up of green fluid. It's a molded plastic receptacle, cream-colored, in the shape of a half-moon, which can be kept handy and spit into. It can be cupped around the mouth of a reclining person, just under the chin, in a way that allows the depositor of green bodily fluids to either raise one's head to spit directly into it, or to simply let the fluid dribble down, over his or her chin, and then into the receptacle waiting below. It was a great find, the half-moon plastic receptacle.

"That thing is handy, huh?" I ask my mother, walking past her, toward the kitchen.

"Yeah, it's the cat's meow," she says.

I get a popsicle from the refrigerator and come back to the family room.

They took my mother's stomach out about six months ago. At that point, there wasn't a lot left to remove—they had already taken out [I would use the medical terms here if I knew them] the rest of it about a year before. Then they tied the [something] to the [something], hoped that they had removed the offending portion, and set her on a schedule of chemotherapy. But of course they didn't get it all. They had left some of it and it had grown, it had come back, it had laid eggs, was stowed away, was stuck to the side of the spaceship. She had seemed good for a while, had done the chemo, had gotten the wigs, and then her hair had grown back—darker, more brittle. But six months later she began to have pain again—Was it indigestion? It could just be indigestion, of course, the burping and the pain, the leaning over the kitchen table at dinner; people have indigestion; people take Tums; Hey Mom, should I get some Tums?—but when she went in again, and they had "opened her up"—a phrase they used—and had looked inside, it was staring out at them, at the doctors, like a thousand writhing worms under a rock, swarming, shimmering, wet and oily—Good God!—or maybe not like worms but like a million little podules, each a tiny city of cancer, each with an unruly, sprawling, environmentally careless citizenry with no zoning laws whatsoever. When the doctor opened her up, and there was suddenly light thrown upon the world of cancer-podules, they were annoyed by the disturbance, and defiant. Turn off. The fucking. Light. They glared at the doctor, each podule, though a city into itself, having one single eye, one blind evil eye in the middle, which stared imperiously, as only a blind eye can do, out at the doctor. Go. The. Fuck. Away.The doctors did what they could, took the whole stomach out, connected what was left, this part to that, and sewed her back up, leaving the city as is, the colonists to their manifest destiny, their fossil fuels, their strip malls and suburban sprawl, and replaced the stomach with a tube and a portable external IV bag. It's kind of cute, the IV bag. She used to carry it with her, in a gray backpack—it's futuristic-looking, like a synthetic ice pack crossed with those liquid food pouches engineered for space travel. We have a name for it. We call it "the bag."

My mother and I are watching TV. It's the show where young amateur athletes with day jobs in marketing and engineering compete in sports of strength and agility against male and female bodybuilders. The bodybuilders are mostly blond and are impeccably tanned. They look great. They have names that sound fast and indomitable, names like American cars and electronics, like Firestar and Mercury and Zenith. It is a great show.

"What is this?" she asks, leaning toward the TV. Her eyes, once small, sharp, intimidating, are now dull, yellow, droopy, strained—the spitting gives them a look of constant exasperation.

"The fighting show thing," I say.

"Hmm," she says, then turns, lifts her head to spit.

"Is it still bleeding?" I ask, sucking on my popsicle.


We are having a nosebleed. While I was in the bathroom, she was holding the nose, but she can't hold it tight enough, so now I relieve her, pinching her nostrils with my free hand. Her skin is oily, smooth.

"Hold it tighter," she says.

"Okay," I say, and hold it tighter. Her skin is hot.

Toph's shoes continue to rumble.

A month ago Beth was awake early; she cannot remember why. She walked down the stairs, shushing the green carpet, down to the foyer's black slate floor. The front door was open, with only the screen door closed. It was fall, and cold, and so with two hands she closed the large wooden door, click, and turned toward the kitchen. She walked down the hall and into the kitchen, frost spiderwebbed on the corners of its sliding glass door, frost on the bare trees in the backyard. She opened the refrigerator and looked inside. Milk, fruit, IV bags dated for proper use. She closed the refrigerator. She walked from the kitchen into the family room, where the curtains surrounding the large front window were open, and the light outside was white. The window was a bright silver screen, lit from behind. She squinted until her eyes adjusted. As her eyes focused, in the middle of the screen, at the end of the driveway, was my father, kneeling.

It's not that our family has no taste, it's just that our family's taste is inconsistent. The wallpaper in the downstairs bathroom, though it came with the house, is the house's most telling decorative statement, featuring a pattern of fifteen or so slogans and expressions popular at the time of its installation. Right On, Neat-O, Outta Sight!—arranged so they unite and abut in intriguing combinations. That-A-Way meets Way Out so that the A in That-A-Way creates A Way Out.The words are hand-rendered in stylized block letters, red and black against white. It could not be uglier, and yet the wallpaper is a novelty that visitors appreciate, evidence of a family with no pressing interest in addressing obvious problems of decor, and also proof of a happy time, an exuberant, fanciful time in American history that spawned exuberant and fanciful wallpaper.

The living room is kind of classy, actually—clean, neat, full of heirlooms and antiques, an oriental rug covering the center of the hardwood floor. But the family room, the only room where any of us has ever spent any time, has always been, for better or for worse, the ultimate reflection of our true inclinations. It's always been jumbled, the furniture competing, with clenched teeth and sharp elbows, for the honor of the Most Wrong-looking Object. For twelve years, the dominant chairs were blood orange. The couch of our youth, that which interacted with the orange chairs and white shag carpet, was plaid—green, brown and white. The family room has always had the look of a ship's cabin, wood paneled, with six heavy wooden beams holding, or pretending to hold, the ceiling above. The family room is dark and, save for a general sort of decaying of its furniture and walls, has not changed much in the twenty years we've lived here. The furniture is overwhelmingly brown and squat, like the furniture of a family of bears. There is our latest couch, my father's, long and covered with something like tan-colored velour, and there is the chair next to the couch, which five years ago replaced the bloodoranges, a sofa-chair of brownish plaid, my mother's. In front of the couch is a coffee table made from a cross section of a tree, cut in such a way that the bark is still there, albeit heavily lacquered. We brought it back, many years ago, from California and it, like most of the house's furniture, is evidence of an empathetic sort of decorating philosophy—for aesthetically disenfranchised furnishings we are like the families that adopt troubled children and refugees from around the world—we see beauty within and cannot say no.

One wall of the family room was and is dominated by a brick fireplace. The fireplace has a small recessed area that was built to facilitate indoor barbecuing, though we never put it to use, chiefly because when we moved in, we were told that raccoons lived somewhere high in the chimney. So for many years the recessed area sat dormant, until the day, about four years ago, that our father, possessed by the same odd sort of inspiration that had led him for many years to decorate the lamp next to the couch with rubber spiders and snakes, put a fish tank inside. The fish tank, its size chosen by a wild guess, ended up fitting perfectly.

"Hey hey!" he had said when he installed it, sliding it right in, with no more than a centimeter of give on either side. "Hey hey!" was something he said, and to our ears it sounded a little too Fonzie, coming as it did from a gray-haired lawyer wearing madras pants. "Hey hey!" he would say after such miracles, which were dizzying in their quantity and wonderment—in addition to the Miracle of the Fish-tank Fitting, there was, for example, the Miracle of Getting the TV Wired Through the Stereo for True Stereo Sound, not to mention the Miracle of Running the Nintendo Wires Under the Wall-to-Wall Carpet So as Not to Have the Baby Tripping Over Them All the Time Goddammit. (He was addicted to Nintendo.) To bring attention to each marvel, he would stand before whoever happened to be in the room and, while grinning wildly, grip his hands together in triumph, over one shoulder and then the other, like the Cub Scout who won the Pinewood Derby. Sometimes, for modesty's sake, he would do it with his eyes closed and his head tilted. Did I do that?

"Loser," we would say.

"Aw, screw you," he would say, and go make himself a Bloody Mary.

The ceiling in one corner of the living room is stained in concentric circles of yellow and brown, a souvenir from heavy rains the spring before. The door to the foyer hangs by one of its three hinges. The carpet, off-white wall-to-wall, is worn to its core and has not been vacuumed in months. The screen windows are still up—my father tried to take them down but could not this year. The family room's front window faces east, and because the house sits beneath a number of large elms, it receives little light. The light in the family room is not significantly different in the day and the night. The family room is usually dark.

I am home from college for Christmas break. Our older brother, Bill, just went back to D.C., where he works for the Heritage Foundation—something to do with eastern European economics, privatization, conversion. My sister is home because she has been home all year—she deferred law school to be here for the fun. When I come home, Beth goes out.

"Where are you going?" I usually say.

"Out," she usually says.

I am holding the nose. As the nose bleeds and we try to stop it, we watch TV. On the TV an accountant from Denver is trying to climb up a wall before a bodybuilder named Striker catches him and pulls him off the wall. The other segments of the show can be tense—there is an obstacle course segment, where the contestants are racing against each other and also the clock, and another segment where they hit each other with sponge-ended paddles, both of which can be extremely exciting, especially if the contest is a close one, evenly matched and with much at stake—but this part, with the wall climbing, is too disturbing. The idea of the accountant being chased while climbing a wall...no one wants to be chased while climbing a wall, chased by anything, by people, hands grabbing at their ankles as they reach for the bell at the top. Striker wants to grab and pull the accountant down—he lunges every so often at the accountant's legs—all he needs is a good grip, a lunge and a grip and a good yank—and if Striker and his hands do that before the accountant gets to ring the bell...it's a horrible part of the show. The accountant climbs quickly, feverishly, nailing foothold after foothold, and for a second it looks like he'll make it, because Striker is so far below, two people-lengths easily, but then the accountant pauses. He cannot see his next move. The next grip is too far to reach from where he is. So then he actually backs up, goes down a notch to set out on a different path and when he steps down it is unbearable, the suspense. The accountant steps down and then starts up the left side of the wall, but suddenly Striker is there, out of nowhere—he wasn't even in the screen!—and he has the accountant's leg, at the calf, and he yanks and it's over. The accountant flies from the wall (attached by rope of course) and descends slowly to the floor. It's terrible. I won't watch this show again.

Mom prefers the show where three young women sit on a pastel-colored couch and recount blind dates that they have all enjoyed or suffered through with the same man. For months, Beth and Mom have watched the show, every night. Sometimes the show's participants have had sex with one another, but use funny words to describe it. And there is the funny host with the big nose and the black curly hair. He is a funny man, and has fun with the show, keeps everything buoyant. At the end the show, the bachelor picks one of the three with whom he wants to go on another date. The host then does something pretty incredible: even though he's already paid for the three dates previously described, and even though he has nothing to gain from doing anything more, he still gives the bachelor and bachelorette money for their next date.

Mom watches it every night; it's the only thing she can watch without falling asleep, which she does a lot, dozing on and off during the day. But she does not sleep at night.

"Of course you sleep at night," I say.

"I don't," she says.

"Everyone sleeps at night," I say—this is an issue with me—"even if it doesn't feel like it. The night is way, way too long to stay awake the whole way through. I mean, there have been times when I was pretty sure I had stayed up all night, like when I was sure the vampires from Salem's Lot—do you remember that one, with David Soul and everything? With the people impaled on the antlers? I was afraid to sleep, so I would stay up all night, watching that little portable TV on my stomach, the whole night, afraid to drift off, because I was sure they'd be waiting for just that moment, just when I fell asleep, to come and float up to my window, or down the hall, and bite me, all slow-like. . ."

She spits into her half-moon and looks at me.

"What the hell are you talking about?"

In the fireplace, the fish tank is still there, but the fish, four or five of those bug-eyed goldfish with elephantiasis, died weeks ago. The water, still lit from above by the purplish aquarium light, is gray with mold and fish feces, hazy like a shaken snow globe. I am wondering about something. I am wondering what the water would taste like. Like a nutritional shake? Like sewage? I think of asking my mother: What do you think that would taste like? But she will not find the question amusing. She will not answer.

"Would you check it?" she says, referring to her nose.

I let go of her nostrils. Nothing.

I watch the nose. She is still tan from the summer. Her skin is smooth, brown. Then it comes, the blood, first in a tiny rivulet, followed by a thick eel, venturing out, slowly. I get a towel and dab it away.

"It's still coming," I say.

Her white blood cell count has been low. Her blood cannot clot properly, the doctor had said the last time this had happened, so, he said, we can have no bleeding. Any bleeding could be the end, he said. Yes, we said. We were not worried. There seemed to be precious few opportunities to draw blood, with her living, as she did, on the couch. 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 say, 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—How often will she have to take that? Can't we just add that to the mix in the IV?—and then we sometimes add some levity with a witty aside. From books and television I knowto do this. One 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.

"I can't get the game to work," says Toph, who has appeared from the basement. Christmas was a week ago, and we got him a bunch of new games for the Sega.


"I can't get the game to work."

"Is it turned on?"


"Is the cartridge plugged all the way in?"


"Turn it off and on again."

"Okay," he says, and goes back downstairs.

Through the family room window, in the middle of the white-silver screen, my father was in his suit, a gray suit, dressed for work. Beth paused in the entrance between the kitchen and the family room and watched. The trees in the yard across the street were huge, gray-trunked, high-limbed, the short grass on the lawn yellowed, spotted with fall leaves. He did not move. His suit, even with him kneeling, leaning forward, was loose on his shoulders and back. He had lost so much weight. A car went by, a gray blur. She waited for him to get up.

You should see the area where her stomach was. It's grown like a pumpkin. Round, bloated. It's odd—they removed the stomach, and some of the surrounding area if I remember correctly, but even with the removal of so much thereabouts, she looks pregnant. You can see it, the bulge, even under the blanket. I'm assuming it's the cancer, but I haven't asked my mother, or Beth. Was it the bloating of the starving child? I don't know. I don't ask questions. Before, when I said that I asked questions, I lied.

The nose has at this point been bleeding for about ten minutes. She had had one nosebleed before, two weeks ago maybe, and Beth could not make it stop, so she and Beth had gone to the emergency room. The hospital people had kept her for two days. Her oncologist, who sometimes we liked and sometimes we did not, came and visited and glanced at stainless steel charts and chatted on the side of the bed—he has been her oncologist for many years. They gave her new blood and had monitored her white blood cell count. They had wanted to keep her longer, but she had insisted on going home; she was terrified of being in there, was finished with hospitals, did not want—

She had come out feeling defeated, stripped, and now, safely at home, she did not want to go back. She had made me and Beth promise that she would never have to go back. We had promised.

"Okay," we said.

"I'm serious," she said.

"Okay," we said.

I push her forehead as far back as possible. The arm of the couch is soft and pliable.

She spits. She is used to the spitting, but still makes strained, soft vomiting noises.

"Does it hurt?" I ask.

"Does what hurt?"

"The spitting."

"No, it feels good, stupid."


A family walks by outside, two parents, a small child in snowpants and a parka, a stroller. They do not look through our window. It is hard to tell if they know. They might know but are being polite. People know.

My mother likes to have the curtains open so she can see the yard and the street. During the day it is often very bright outside, and though the brightness is visible from inside the family room, somehow the light does not travel effectively into the family room, in terms of bringing to the family room any noticeable illumination. I am not a proponent of the curtains being open.

Some people know. Of course they know.

People know.

Everyone knows.

Everyone is talking. Waiting.

I have plans for them, the nosy, the inquisitive, the pitying, have developed elaborate fantasies for those who would see us as grotesque, pathetic, our situation gossip fodder. I picture strangulations—Tsk tsk, I hear she's- GURGLE!—neck-breakings—what will happen to that poor little bo-CRACK!—I picture kicking bodies as they lie curled on the ground, spitting blood as they—Jesus Christ, Jesus fucking Christ, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!—beg for mercy. I lift them over my head and then bring them down, break them over my knee, their spines like dowels of balsa. Can't you see it? I push offenders into giant vats of acid and watch them struggle, scream as the acid burns, breaks them apart. My hands fly into them, breaking their skin—I pull out hearts and intestines and toss them aside. I do head-crushings, beheadings, some work with baseball bats—the variety and degree of punishment depending on the offender and the offense. Those whom I don't like or my mother doesn't like in the first place get the worst—usually long, drawn-out strangulations, faces of red then purple then mauve. Those I barely know, like the family that just walked by, are spared the worst—nothing personal. I'll run them over with my car.

We are both distantly worried about the bleeding nose, my mother and I, but are for the time being working under the assumption that the nose will stop bleeding. While I hold her nose she holds the half-moon receptacle as it rests on the upper portion of her chest, under her chin.

Just then I have a great idea. I try to get her to talk funny, the way people talk when their nose is being held.

"Please?" I say.

"No," she says.


"Cut it out."


Table of Contents

Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of This Bookvii
Preface to This Editionix
Incomplete Guide to Symbols and Metaphorsxxxviii
Part I.Through the small tall bathroom window, etc.1
Video games
"Blind leaders of the blind" [Bible]
Some violence
Embarrassment, naked men
Part II.Please look. Can You see us, etc.47
Ocean plunging, frothing
Little League, black mothers
Rotation and substitution
Hills, views, roofs, toothpicks
Numbing and sensation
Johnny Bench
Part III.The enemies list, etc.71
Teachers driven before us
Plane crash
State of the Family Room Address
So like a fragile girl
Old model, new model
Bob Fosse Presents
Part IV.Oh I could be going out, sure105
But no. No no!
The weight
Seven years one's senior, how fitting
John Doe
Decay v. preservation
Burgundy, bolts
Part V.Outside it's blue-black and getting darker, etc.123
Stephen, murderer, surely
The Bridge
Jon and Pontius Pilate
John, Moodie, et al.
A stolen wallet
The 99th percentile
Mexican kids
Lineups, lights
A trail of blood, and then silence
Part VI.When we hear the news at First167
[Some mild nudity]
All the hope of history to date
An interview
Death and suicide
Keg beer
Mr. T
Steve the Black Guy
A death faked, perhaps (the gray car)
A possible escape, via rope, of sheets
A broken door
Betrayal justified
Part VII.Fuck it. Stupid show, etc.239
Some bitterness, some calculation
Or anything that looks un-us
More nudity, still mild
Of color, who is of color?
Chakka the Pakuni
Hairy all the crotches are, bursting from panties and briefs
The Marina
The flying-object maneuver
Drama or blood or his mouth foaming or
A hundred cymbals
Would you serve them grapes? Would that be wrong?
"So I'm not allowed"
Details of all this will be good
Part VIII.We can't do anything about the excrement281
The Future
"Slacker? Not me," laughs Hillman
Meath: Oh yeah, we love that multicultural stuff
Fill out forms
"a nightmare WASP utopia"
A sexual sort of lushness
There has been Spin the Bottle
"I don't know"
"Thank you, Jesus"
"I'm dying, Shal"
Part IX.Robert Urich says no. We were so close311
Laura Branigan, Lori Singer, Ed Begley, Jr.
To be thought of as smart, legitimate, permanent. So you do your little thing
A bitchy little thing about her
A fall
The halls, shabbily shiny, are filled with people in small clumps
That Polly Klaas guy giving me the finger at the trial
Adam, by association, unimpressive
Part X.Of course it's cold353
The cold when walking off the plane
Plans for a kind of personal archaeological orgy or something, from funeral homes to John Hussa, whose mom heated milk once, after Grizzly
A lesbian agnostic named Minister Lovejoy
Chad and the copies
Leaf pile
Another threat
Of course she knows
Wouldn't everyone be able to tell?
The water rising, as if under it already
Part XI.Black Sands Beach is407
No hands
Down the hill, the walk
Birthday, parquet
Hot, poisoned blood
Jail, bail, the oracle
More maneuvers
A fight
Finally, finally

Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading and discussion of Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. We hope that they will provide you with a variety of ways of thinking and talking about this extraordinary and unique book.

1. The material preceding the main text in this book—called "front matter" in the publishing business—has been entirely taken over by the author, including the usually very official copyright page. Why might the publisher have allowed Eggers to take this unconventional route? Why does Eggers work so extensively at disrupting the formality of publication and his status as an author?

2. On the copyright page we find the statement, "This is a work of fiction"; and at the beginning of the preface Eggers writes, "This is not, actually, a work of pure nonfiction." What point is Eggers making by casting all these doubts on the veracity of the book's contents? In his discussion about the current popularity of memoirs [pp. xxi-xxiii], Eggers admits that the book is a memoir but encourages his readers to think of it as fiction. What is the difference, in a work of literature, between fact and fiction, and does it matter?

3. In the remarkable acknowledgments section, which is a brilliant critique and discussion of the book as a whole, Eggers points out that "the success of a memoir . . . has a lot to do with how appealing its narrator is" [p. xxvii]. What is appealing about Eggers as a narrator?

4. Eggers notes that the first major theme of the book is "The Unspoken Magic of Parental Disappearance" [p. xxviii]. It is a psychological truism that most children occasionally fantasize about being orphans, because parents often stand in the way of their children's desires. Along these lines, Eggers admits that the loss of his parents is "accompanied by an undeniable but then of course guilt-inducing sense of mobility, of infinite possibility" [p. xxix]. Does he ever find a way to resolve his conflicting emotions of grief and guilt?

5. If it is true, as Eggers points out, that he is not the first person whose parents died or who was left with the care of a sibling, what makes his story unique?

6. Eggers worries that because he is neither a woman nor a neat, well-organized person [pp. 81, 99], people assume that he can't take care of Toph. Which aspects of Eggers' parenting are most admirable? Which are most comic? What are the benefits and drawbacks of each aspect?

7. How do Eggers' memories of his father compare to those about his mother? To what degree are his feelings about his parents resolved, or at least assuaged, through the act of writing this book?

8. Much of the central part of the book relates to the business of launching and producing Might magazine. What does this section reveal about the concerns, desires, and frustrations of thoughtful, energetic twenty-somethings in contemporary America?

9. Eggers expresses ambivalence about having written this book because he feels guilty about exploiting his family's misfortune and exposing a private matter to the public. Among the epigraphs that Eggers considered, and then didn't use, for the book are "Why not just write what happened?" (R. Lowell) and "Ooh, look at me, I'm Dave, I'm writing a book! With all my thoughts in it! La la la!" (Christopher Eggers) [p. xvii]. How do these two epigraphs crystallize the memoir writer's dilemma?

10. Why does Eggers judge himself so harshly for returning to the family's old house in Lake Forest and for trying to retrieve his mother's ashes? Does the trip provide him and his story with a sense of closure, or just the opposite? Is there a central revelation to Eggers' narrative, a strong sense of change or a significant development? Or would you say, on the contrary, that the book has the haphazardness and lack of structure that we find in real life?

11. Eggers refers, half-jokingly, half-seriously, to himself and Toph as "God's tragic envoys" [p. 73]. Is it true, as Eggers suggests, that tragic occurrences give those to whom they happen the feeling of having been singled out for a special destiny? Is it common among those who have suffered intensely to expect some sort of recompense?

12. Recurring throughout the interview for MTV's The Real World [chapter VI] is the image of what Eggers calls "the lattice." What does he mean by this, and does it amount to a kind of spiritual belief on his part?

13. Mary Park, writing for Amazon.com, notes that "Eggers comes from the most media-saturated generation in history—so much so that he can't feel an emotion without the sense that it's already been felt for him. . . . Oddly enough, the effect is one of complete sincerity." How does Eggers manage to turn his generation's burdens of self-consciousness into strengths? What are the qualities that make his writing so vivid and memorable?


The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading and discussion of Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. We hope that they will provide you with a variety of ways of thinking and talking about this extraordinary and unique book.

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Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 322 reviews.
MontyGeorge More than 1 year ago
"A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" is a strange, confusing, out of order, dizzying ride.... fabulous book! Worth the read, but not for casual readers as you'll want to finish the book in one sitting. Eggers is a "trip".
Jessie93 More than 1 year ago
Definitely an interesting read. You need patience to read this book. Eggers is a total scatter-brains. There will be numerous time throughout the book that you will feel like there is no point to the book at all. You will read page after page of nothing. The young Eggers in this memoir can be very self-absorbed and that is very annoying. Some parts are mildly entertaining and his thought process is completely over the top. Seems like a good book for a psychologist to read and then come up with a proper diagnosis.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found the book difficult to read because of the writer's self absorbtion. However,it was touching how he showed his love for his young brother and how he cared for him. But all through the book I kept thinking about his "flight of ideas"and overworked imagination. Interestingly, we had thoughtful discussions at our book club meeting.
BlairDT More than 1 year ago
"A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" could more accurately be titled" A Colossal Pile of Self-Serving Drivel". Eggers focuses on the tragedies that befall him and his family and when that source of sympathy starts to dry up he inserts himself into the tragedies of other people in his life no matter how remote the relationship. It is typical from Mr. Eggers' generation, Gen X, the Slackers, to play the martyr and expect praise for doing the things that most people consider normal. I don't know why this book was selected as a Pulitzer finalist and I would not recommend it to anyone. And that's not even mentioning the horrendous editing - I counted 15 commas in one sentence - this book should give an English teacher a stroke. I hope Eggers' style has changed now that he is writing fiction but I will never know because I will never read him again.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is my all-time favorite book. However, I think knowing about the theories of postmodernism is crucial to understanding his underlying meanings and to appreciating the memoir as a whole. This work is a perfect example of extreme metafiction, playing games with the games that postmodernists play (which makes it post-postmodern), and mocking the typical, self-indulgent memoir. Just as the title says, the memoir is a truly heartbreaking story. You really get to know him, his voice, & his humor.
Mitchell_Pavel-123 More than 1 year ago
I thought it was a great book that was original and it makes the reader think not only about the text itself but also about their own views on life. Even though Dave's stroy was specific and exact to him he managed to pull the reader into it and made them think about their own life. The book was however very thick and some what of a slow read because of the wide range of descriptions. If read avidly it will easily draw any reader close to the characters and evoke thought and deep emotions from them. It is dramatic but should not be read by anyone who is sensitivce to profanity or depressing thoughts.
shelly11 More than 1 year ago
There are three factors that determine a successful memoir: a unique style, sense of trust, and the ability to relate. The weird thing is, I didn't know these were the factors until after I finished this book. Dave Eggers does everything exactly right. I felt like I had dove into my own psyche, like he knew and felt every one of my own insecurities about myself and if people like me and losing everything important to me someday. I especially related to his stream of consciousness tangents, which would gradually get more and more ridiculous as they progressed. He is irrational, self-centered, and skittish. But he is very aware of it. Eggers does not try to make himself look any better than he is. In fact, he is more than willing to admit that he is not the most virtuous of people, and not everything he is retelling is totally accurate. This only made me trust him more; after all, who hasn't added some embellishments to a story being retold? And what a story it is; losing both parents within a month of each other, and then having to become the guardian of a child, all at the age of 21. Eggers handles his situation with a sense of humor and levity that is inspiring. His writing feels so personal, like reading a friend's diary. I felt his happiness, sadness, and by the end, I felt like we had both come out of a tough time stronger than ever and we could take on the world. The "staggering genius" of this book comes not in his triumph over his unfortunate situation or his unique way of writing (although it certainly has a lot to do with it); rather, it is his ability to describe his flaws and doubts, which are humankind's flaws and doubts too.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was pure genius. He writes to please himself, not the reader, in my opinion. I think that's the way it should be. While I was reading it, I couldn't help but feel slightly jealous. His words are so captivating that I found myself reading in the hallways from class to class. I hope someday my writing can be as inspiring as his.
McSienimicki More than 1 year ago
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers was indeed heartbreaking and staggering. The most impressive part of this work was that the reader never loses sight of the author's voice. Throughout the entire novel there is the constant and consistent voice of the author reliving his early twenties. Even if at times the voice is manic, cynical, or hilariously sarcastic, the voice is always there. It's a book that's good for reading if you like a strong narrative that just pulls you through the whole way easily and the reader has to do hardly any work at all to keep up. The book finds a quirky way of telling the story of this young man's desperate years after losing his parents and being put upon to raise his younger brother and find a way of sustaining them both. In telling about incidents at home or at work the author tells the story almost more like a stream of consciousness that is relatable to everyone. The story is overall endearing as this young man struggles to maintain what he hopes to be a normal life though they are anything but normal. This book is an excellent and moving read. It's fast paced and conversational in that one might not even feel like they're reading, but instead jumping straight into the mind of the author.
Mit_Nitram More than 1 year ago
Let me start off by informing you that I read this book for a school assignment. I cannot think of any other reason I would have picked it up unless someone recommended it. Nobody I know is an avid reader so I feel very fortunate I got stuck with Dave Eggers. Our teacher gave us a brief synopsis of the books and when she covered A.H.W.o.S.G. I thought to myself "steer clear of that one, it sounds incredibly depressing". Well needless to say that was the work I was assigned, and I enjoyed every page. Dave eggers memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, has an intricately designed plot alternately layering the sad and the dismal with the bright and the cheerful. The hopeless optimism that shines through the characters is somewhat uplifting (was it inspiring? not really but I didn't feel as negative about my life, like "it could be worse"). I have read novels, even memoirs, where the protagonist overcomes the odds so that isn't why I liked it. (In fact if you are looking for the cheerful story aforementioned, you should look elsewhere) No, what I liked and can really respect is an author who does not take themselves seriously. I don't mean too seriously, I mean seriously. Read the 60 or so pages of the preface and you'll understand what I mean. If and when you come across an author who advises you to skip large portions of their own work let me know. I could not read this book in public because I found myself laughing hysterically or even nodding, like to acknowledge I understood what he was trying to say. This leads me to my first gripe. It is at time difficult to understand. This is a re-read each page type of book, I had to go back and read entire passages that were unclear. This book is not concise, it is actually pretty manic and it tends to spiral Yeah his sense of humor is out there, you either like it or you don't. My second complaint is that unless you honestly do well at trivial pursuit a few culture references will go right over your head. I got enough of them but I had Google everything else. So I liked the memoir. I think if I wrote a legitimate book it would probably be similar. I would recommend it, but you really have to be patient, as in it takes a while for the sunnier side to appear.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fantastic. Finally finished this. Must must read he's a true storyteller. And with a style id kill to have a fraction of.
debramathis More than 1 year ago
I suppose all memoirs are written as an exercise in ego-stroking, but Eggers manages to remind us of this purpose throughout the whole book. I hated him by the end which is unfortunate because there is a good story in all that clever posturing. 
babybelly More than 1 year ago
A definite read. Original, thought-provoking, and definitely self-reflective; even if the writer himself impies that everyone is self-absorbed (he included!). It breaks hearts and warms them as well. I do wonder though, did he ever find his little stuffed bear?
jhallen More than 1 year ago
Dave Eggers' "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," is a genuinely written novel. Personally, I liked how Dave overly used detail and wrote out his entire thought process. Many would say that Dave rambles throughout the novel, but I see it as his genuine writing style. It is almost as if Dave has A.D.D. and O.C.D. due to his "what-if" nature of thinking. As for the plot, I think that anyone could have been in Dave's shoes, but wouldn't have dealt with it as nonchalant as he had. Even though this book dwindles around the fiction section, I believe most of the events actually happened. The fact that the novel is more or less what Dave went through captivated me, and made me realize how deep of a situation it was and how he could look back on it and make it entertaining and not-so-depressing. I rated this book 4 out of 5 stars, because of the dry spots within the middle of the novel. Even though the book is a good read, I don't think a discussion should be solely based on it. -Jonathan Allen
thestone19 More than 1 year ago
Dave Eggers writing is lyrical and grabbing. Granted it took me a few weeks longer to read this than I intended but I am not a fast reader to begin with. I was recommended this book by a friend and found the first few chapters ripe with emotion. He writes about his experience and you feel connected with him because it is something that we all can relate to. The emotion and anger and frustration and almost psychotic rhetoric are very believable (cause it happened) and moving. The book starts and ends strong with the middle getting a little boring. However, the author realizes this and prefaces the book by telling the reader to skip these pages. Over all, I was very satisfied and would recommend this to anyone who is looking for an author who can paint beautiful music with type.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I just finished this book for a school project. I feel like everything bad has happened to the author; from losing both parents at a young age, to raising a brother as a son, having friends deal with suicide attempts, and struggling at work. he has a very odd sense of humor and tends to ramble on random subjects often and for a while which was a little irritating thoughout the book. It did keep my interest as far as wondering what might happen next to him and toph and where they might end up. Overall i wouldn't call it a bad book. If you picked it up to read, you probably wouldn't regret it.
mynameisdan More than 1 year ago
I thought that this book was alright. I thought that it was annoying when he would go off on random rants for several pages at a time. I could relate to the story of losing loved ones to cancer. This is the type of story you read for a deep meaning. Its not the type of story you can just pick up and read for entertainment.
bookburner123 More than 1 year ago
When first hearing the synopsis of this book, I was enthused about reading it and I remained interested up until about page 150 when I began to feel stranded in the middle of a never-ending book. Dave Egger's does a good job telling his "heartbreaking" story but I don't understand how the word "genius" was incorporated into the title. It was interesting to hear Egger's talk about his struggles and the traumatizing events that his family experienced, but I'd save alot of time watching an episode of "Extreme Makeover" to get the same emotional effect. Egger's style of writing is different than most others, in which he writes more descriptions than an encyclopedia and the descriptions make up most of the book, not the story itself. I'd often find myself reading a five page description of something unimportant and losing what is actually happening in the story. In most books I am able to understand why the author wrote the story, but I found no themes or morals in the book and I didn't feel any different after I read the book as I did before I read it. This book has been acknowledged as being a "must read," the plot would make for a decent short-story, but after the death of his parents, Egger writes plainly about unexciting events in his life and he hangs out with his little brother, and these are things I can do everyday.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I bought this book because of the great reviews it had received. And after reading it, I am amazed that it got good reviews at all. Really. I enjoyed the first few chapters where the focus was on the parents and Toph. But I felt like the book started going downhill 'fast' when Eggers started talking so much about his magazine and The Real World. I really didn't care about either of those subjects. Plus, he was VERY annoying. He blabbed on and on about how sorry he felt for himself and about how much better he was than everybody else because of the trials he had been through. In my opinion, he was not likeable at all. And after the things he said, I surely didn't feel sorry for him 'the way he wanted everybody in the story to'. He'd also get off on tangents that I found unnecessary and boring. I would have enjoyed the book much more if it had been focused more on his raising his brother and not on his magazine. I only finished the book because I was waiting for the heartbreaking part to come along 'not to mention the genius'. I would not recommend that anybody read this.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Why, why did I waste my time reading this book? AHWOSG was such a dissapointment. Eggars is funny at first, but he gets really annoying fast.
jensenmk82 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An impressive, but also self-indulgent work. Reading Eggers is rarely dull!
catalogthis on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My love for this book is improbable at best. I usually can't stand this kind of style. In the summary above, Mary Park calls it memoir as metafiction. I call it McSweeneyism. I find it excruciating.So the fact that I love AHWOSG -- can still remember the first line, in fact -- perplexes me. I try not to dwell on it. Maybe you don't need a reason to fall in love, with a book or anything else.
angelm45 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Eggers is a talented writer, which is the only reason I give him any stars at all. His style is fresh and sometimes funny. His self-absorbtion quickly grew tiresome though, and it is difficult to get through a book whose narrator you really dislike! My sympathy for Eggers, which was plentiful when I started reading, steadily evaporated as I made my way through the book. In the end, I just found him annoying and a little too impressed with himself.
miriamparker on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
5 stars for the HILARIOUS and brilliant front matter. One star for the boring navel gazing memoir. So, the average is three.
presto on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Heartwarming account of how the writer, following the death of both parents, at the age of 22 years becomes the carer of his 8 year old brother. The evident brotherly love they share, and the protective care the writer shows for his sibling is most touching. The title in not an exaggeration.