Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: Memoir as a “Pain-Relief Device”
AbstractDave Eggers’s memoir is an important addition to the tradition of autobiography in America, and offers significant contributions to our understanding of creativity, sublimation, and the psychology of the memoir-writing process. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is really two books—an autobiographical narrative about unbearable suffering, and a book of psychoanalytic commentary on the challenges of writing a memoir about catastrophic loss and trauma. The main narrative suggests the psychological resilience it takes to contain unbearable suffering. The metanarrative renders transparent the mind of someone who is both remembering his losses and constantly reflecting upon the process of writing about them. Eggers’s identification with authorship, rather than bereavement or traumatization, may have played an important role in containing his affect and his sense of self when the heartbreaking events were originally unfolding. But a price is paid when a son uses his art to construct a new identity as an author—unconscious conflicts, primitive affect, anxieties about failing, as well as guilt about succeeding—consequences often missed by readers. Heartbreaking is a palimpsest, a story about story-telling superimposed on tales of death and survival, but its messages will be missed unless all its parts are preserved when being read or studied.