Side Effects May Include Too-Frequent Laughter

After my last class of the semester, I gave myself the gift of starting a book purely for pleasure without any thought of teaching what I was reading. The pleasure in question: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. You wouldn’t think that reading about a twenty-one-year-old watching both parents die of cancer within five weeks of each other and then struggling to raise his eight-year-old brother as a single parent could be hilarious, but I laugh out loud on a too-frequent basis. This is the kind of book that can get you in trouble at the library, or even in bed, if your lover is trying to do anything at all besides read her own copy of the same book, which is highly unlikely and would make a bizarre scenario.

Wonderfully anti-literary in a passionate, darkly comic, forget-what-you-think-you-know-about-lit-because-now-you-can-do-anything-in-a-book kind of way, AHWOSG begins on the copyright page where the author describes his memoir as “a work of fiction only in that in many cases, the author could not remember the exact words said by certain people, and exact descriptions of certain things, so had to fill in the gaps as best he could.” One sentence later he adds, “Any resemblance to persons living or dead should be plainly apparent to them and those who know them, especially if the author has been kind enough to have provided their real names and, in some cases, their phone numbers.” While this is not a review, I’ve noticed that few reviewers comment on the copyright page, which also goes into a mini-rant about the “absolutely huge German company called Bertelsmann A.G. which owns too many things to count or track” including Random House which publishes Vintage Books such as AHWOSG. Eggers even provides his vital statistics, notes about his hands and allergies, and his placement on “the sexual-orientation scale” which goes from one to ten, “1 being perfectly straight, and 10 perfectly gay.” Curious to know what rating Eggers gives himself? Read the book!

I first ran into AHWOSG at an airport bookstore while waiting for a delayed flight and read much of its extensive front matter which includes Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of this Book (“the first three or four chapters are all some of you might want to bother with”) and then about thirty-seven pages of preface and acknowledgements which feature extensive deleted scenes, an explanation of why the author voted for Ross Perot in 1996, his budget for writing AHWOSG, and an Incomplete Guide to Symbols and Metaphors (“mother” appears ten times). Yes, I stood in the airport bookstore and read the book for about thirty minutes and then didn’t buy it because I feared it would distract me from researching my master’s thesis, which is exactly what I should have been doing with that spare time between flights.

I recommend AHWOSG if you’re looking for an entirely silly, anti-tragic, moving story from a guy who admits using the “Find” function in Word to avoid starting every sentence of dialogue with “Dude.” By the way, the book was a finalist for the Pulitzer.