Well, this was when Bill was sighing a lot. He had decided that after our parents died he just didn't want any more fighting between what was left of us. He was twenty-four, Beth was twenty-three, I was twenty-one, Toph was eight, and all of us were so tried already, from that winter. So when something world come up, any little thing, some bill to pay or decision to make, he would just sigh, his eyes tired, his mouth in a sorry kind of smile. But Beth and I...Jesus, we were fighting with everyone, anyone, each other, with strangers at bars, anywhere -- we were angry people wanting to exact revenge. We came to California and we wanted everything, would take what was ours, anything within reach. And I decided that little Toph and I, he with his backward hat and long hair, living together in our little house in Berkeley, would be world-destroyers. We inherited each other and, we felt, a responsibility to reinvent everything, to scoff and re-create and drive fast while singing loudly and pounding the windows. It was a hopeless sort of exhilaration, a kind of arrogance born of fatalism, I guess, of the feeling that if you could lose a couple of parents in a month, then basically anything could happen, at any time -- all bullets bear your name, all cars are there to crush you, any balcony could give way; more disaster seemed only logical. And then, as in Dorothy's dream, all these people I grew up with were there, too, some of them orphans also, most but not all of us believing that what we had been given was extraordinary, that it was time to tear or break down, ruin, remake, take and devour. This was San Francisco, you know, and everyone had some dumb idea -- I mean, wicca? -- and no one there would tell you yours was doomed. Thus the public nudity, and this ridiculous magazine, and the Real World tryout, all this need, most of it disguised by sneering, but all driven by a hyper-awareness of this window, I guess, a few years when your muscles are taut, coiled up and vibrating. But what to do with the energy? I mean, when we drive, Toph and I, and we drive past people, standing on top of all these hills, part of me wants to stop the car and turn up the radio and have us all dance in formation, and part of me wants to run them all over.
Memoirs are tricky for any author to tackle. Inherently narcissistic, the triumphs described are too often boastful and the tragedies too often exploitative. Dave Eggers knows this: The first 30 pages of his book--the preface, which Eggers tells impatient readers to skip--provide an incisive and hilarious dissection of the 300-plus fast pages that follow. It's clear from the elaborate pre-preface bibliographical information that this is no ordinary memoir. Rather, the (mostly) non-fictional A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius is a postmodern memoir in the mold of Laurence Sterne's fictional The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, a meta-narrative that turns in upon itself and tricks the reader almost every chance it gets. Eggers, one of the founders of the much-missed Might magazine, has seen enough death in his short life (including the faked murder of former child star Adam Rich) to fill such an experience-fueled endeavor, but the way he goes about doing it is what makes Staggering Genius work. When he was 21, both his parents died of cancer, and with his older brother out of the house and his sister in school, he was put in charge of his 8-year-old brother Toph. Instead of wallowing in guilt or depression, Eggers handles tragedy with sheer audacity, finding humor in the most dire situations and refusing to resort to self-pity. He and Toph live the perverse, parents-free fantasy many children fleetingly harbor, with Eggers sharing his bad habits even as he's forced to assume most of the responsibilities. The writing is never quite as clever or novel as in the virtuoso preface, but Eggers constantly finds ways to make even standard self-analysis interesting. At one point, a bedtime conversation with his younger brother morphs into a psychoanalytic session, with Toph suddenly wresting away the proxy-father-figure position and addressing Eggers with omniscient authority. Later, a casting call-back for The Real World (which actually happened) develops into a long confessional about suburban upbringing. The love of minutia and marginalia Eggers brought to Might makes even the most conventional prose inventive; ironically, this includes the relatively rote chronology of the magazine's creation. While Staggering Genius is admittedly uneven, that's paradoxically part of its unpredictable charm: Eggers would never go about things the standard way, and the book--at times both heartbreaking and genius--ably reflects his idiosyncratic, hyper-casual, pop-culture-saturated worldview.