A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: Oh Brother

This Book Is A Song is a feature in which we match songs to books we've recently read.

One thing that disappoints me about my ongoing quest to experience as many meaningful creative works as I can is that, in the continuous forward motion to new bands, films, books, tv shows, and so on, it is easy to forget the substance of what I previously heard, read, or saw. I first read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius about seven years ago and I decided to reread it because I couldn't recall much beyond a vague sense that I liked it and that it had a unique style.

It's not necessarily a bad thing to return to something later because often we can appreciate it in new ways, having gained new insights from additional life experiences. I know I've liked things way more the second time and I find it interesting how sometimes these revisits come at seemingly perfect moments to experience them. I detailed a musical experience of this with my piece for The Shrine on Emergency & I by The Dismemberment Plan. A literary example for me is Catcher in the Rye. I was entertained initially, sure, but when I reread it, I understood it on a much deeper level, as it was at a time when I was much more aware of my fading youth.

That's what happened with this book by Dave Eggers. It was so much better this second time. Not that it was bad the first time, but I really only was amused by its cleverness and enthralled by its style. I appreciated it mostly intellectually, as opposed to feeling a personal resonance. I have gone through some things in the ensuing years from the original read that has brought me much closer to the Dave Eggers that narrates this book.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a (somewhat fictionalized) memoir in a large part about what happens when your family as you knew it collapses and you are suddenly thrust into a whole new way of defining it. Dave's parents die of cancer about a month apart from each other – lung for his father, stomach for his mother. After this, he moves from the Chicago area to Berkeley, CA and, though only 21, assumes the responsibility of raising his eight year old little brother, Toph (short for Christopher).

Though my parents haven't died, I did experience the collapse of my family as I had known it my whole life when they divorced (I was 19 at separation, 20 at divorce – close to Dave's age in this book), as well as having to adjust to a whole new conception of family. I also experienced the possibility of losing each one in legitimate ways, which was never a tangible feeling before. The first time I read the book, I was of course empathetic to the descriptions of Dave's mother's battle with cancer. The second time, after my mom had gone through her own battle – she is a survivor, thankfully – it was almost like reading another book. It was beyond feeling; this time, I knew.

What became way more meaningful then, is the subtext of how such an impactful experience is something you feel compelled to share, is something that for awhile defines you, with every action, thought, and feeling somehow connected to it, and is something that changes your perspective on everything. I also totally relate to the postmodern notion of how this all can make you feel a cliche or stereotype – how your actions and thoughts and feelings are also a reaction to knowing they are a reaction. Or maybe it's just guilt and confusion. Either way, this was a much different read because it felt like Dave often had a direct line to a lot of my own internal monologues over the past several years.

I also really like another theme of the book: the impassioned yearning to do something. As a person in 2012, I know Dave Eggers has amassed a whole body of work of staggering genius, some of it heartbreaking. He is someone I greatly admire. He's written books of fiction and nonfiction, written screenplays, launched magazines and websites, and created the 826 writing workshop / literary project. He is hilarious, smart, hard-working, and committed to making a difference. Capturing his desire to outpour his energy but not quite knowing where and sharing details on his general early struggles (with Might magazine) also hit me close to home because I have been in the midst of "figuring things out" lately.

It may not be a book for everyone, but it is quite stylistically innovative. Much of it is told chronologically in the first person, but readers are taken down many avenues of asides and tangents. There are conversations that clearly step outside the book to comment on its existence and what that means. There is a lengthy introduction and even little tweaks to the copyright information. It is incredibly personal and feels like an intimate glimpse into the psyche of Dave Eggers. It is this fusion of personal content and unique structure that makes it a memorable and important book.

I have a few ideas for music to connect. The first thing I'll share is a tune from The Unicorns. They actually were the ones that turned me onto Dave Eggers. They played at my college in November 2004 (shortly before they broke up) and I got to interview them. I hope to post that interview on TWD, but I'll say that it was a long conversation that went many directions, including at one point, Alden mentioning how much he liked McSweeney's and the writings of Dave Eggers. I checked it out and quickly became hooked on McSweeney's Internet Tendency. From there the fondness and interest grew. I feel like "I Was Born (A Unicorn)" fits with A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius because of its energy, its cleverness, a similar subtext to the book's theme of feeling unique and great and wanting to dominate the world, and the interplay between Nick and Alden that is very brother-like.

The Unicorns – I Was Born (A Unicorn)

The brotherhood of Dave and Toph is the true heart of the book. I think that's really cool since I have a younger brother. We are not quite as many years apart (only four), nor did I have to raise him, but I could frequently relate to the Eggers brothers. My brother and I don't really look alike – and there is probably a good chance most people would peg him as the older one – and we have some distinctly opposite personality traits. For instance, I am rarely, if ever, outgoing in a new setting, whereas my brother always seems to be effortlessly charming. If I had his ability to get jobs, and he had my ability to keep them, we would make for an amazing worker. We fight sometimes and certainly get on each other's nerves, but overall, we have a good bond like Dave and Toph.

Sense of humor is a huge connection for us. I of course love to make him laugh, to really get him going, and he happens to be one of the funniest people I know, very gifted at imitations and recalling things. We have a detailed shorthand built upon quotes from movies, TV shows, our relatives, and much more. We know how to insult each other in such a way that usually makes the other acknowledge their approval once they stop laughing. One of my favorite things is him making me laugh by quoting or identifying something I hadn't noticed as funny before. We also get fixated on goofy things that may or may not be humerous to anyone else.

The Four Non Blondes – What's Up?

For some reason, one of those is the song "What's Up?" by The Four Non Blondes. The "And I cry…Oh my GOD do I crrrrry" line has gotten a lot of mileage. We also are big fans of Biz Markie – there was probably a year of yelling "Bennie!" in honor of his Elton John "Bennie and the Jets" cover – and because it's a great song and because our grandma is named Agnes (she also went by Agatha), we absolutely love "Just A Friend." Every so often, one of us texts "I got friends and that's a fact…," and the other responds "Like Agnes, Agatha, Jermaine, and Jack." There are plenty of other songs that make me think of my brother, but I think those two will do for this post on a book about two brothers.

Biz Markie – Just A Friend

What do you all think of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius? How easy is it to relate to? What is something you reread that took on a new meaning? For those with brothers, what songs make you think of them?