Friday, September 30, 2011

A heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

(I am attempting to consume lots of new stuff recently, so this blog may devolve into multiple reviews. Also, statistics is being frustrating and I need a break!)

AHWOSG as it shall henceforth be known, is quite an astounding novel, written by David Eggers. I went into the book pretty much blind- the title had amused me, and I knew he had written the lukewarm Away we go. The book opens with an amusing prelude of notes and prevarications, which will be familiar to anyone who has browed to McSweeney's, a website Eggers edits. Its pretty funny, and sets you up for certain parts of the book- in particular the habit of the text to occasionally break the fourth wall, for the characters to have a conversation about how the story is going.

And then the book begins properly, with the death of Egger's mother. Its pretty damn painful, and visceral, as we get to see precisely what Egger's is thinking as his mother is in the other room, and they can't stop a nose bleed that has been going on for hours. Egger's uses a device while writing in that the style of writing changes to reflect his emotional state, so once something distressing happens we get jagged, run on sentences that work surprisingly effectively.

It transpires that AHWOSG is mostly autobiographical, and Eggers has had some difficult times. In the space of a year both of his parents died, and he was left, a 20 year old, with primary responsibility for looking after his eight year old properly.

Its an incredibly honest piece of work, even when you feel like its lying. There is no doubt that Eggers is bearing his emotional breast at several points in this book, and some of his writing is incredibly cruel about who he was- we get to see his most unworthy thoughts and behaviours, his failures and some successes. He has particularly cruel about Might, a magazine he worked on for several years, the text is expertly pulled apart. Its a painful piece of work, but its also funny, and very well written, which kept me reading it all the way through.

The habit of the book to occasionally break the fourth wall, while it might be offputting to some, actually proved very effective. It allows Eggers to point out where he is distorting the truth on occasion, and with one suicidal character who appears later in the book, it allows Eggers to point out that, while he is using the suicidal character as a metaphor, he is a real human, and is much more than he is allowed to be in the book.

I loved this book. It communicates the pain and difficulty of life incredibly effectively, and while it might be a bit pretentious, its actually very aware of that, and somehow manages to get away with it.

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