I started reading Dave Eggers' novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius today at work. I was supposed to be moving cement and what not, but instead I just hid in the propane shed, away from boss' prying eyes, and read this novel.
I have to say, I identify with Eggers quite a bit in here. His characters in his books have had major life changing breakdowns because of the deaths of those closest to them, not too mention the often surprisingly sudden demises that they go through. Though it is something that could be called a memoir, AHOSG is semi fictional, simply because he claims that he just can't remember every incident in his life (understable, I guess).
In the massive prologue to AHWOSG, he breaks down every thread that will course through the book, down to his own intense fear of getting old and decrepid. And when I say "fear", I mean fear. Part of the reason I dig him and his writings so much is that he is the first writer I've read in a long time that still deals with that trepidation at becoming ancient, and the terror of knowing that one day he must die. These are feelings that I share with him; getting old, as I have stated, is the fear that I war with every hour, wondering how bad it will get for me. Will I get cancer? An aneurysem at 34? A heart attack at 42? Will I make it to 63, only to slip on the ice in the brutal winter, break my hip, then die shortly after? Or will I make it the long haul, maybe even to around 80 or 85, so I can be one of those irritating old fuckers who come into the garden center in their socks and sandals, tipping guys 35 cents for loading up 40 bags of stone (even though they know that it won't buy shit nowadays)?
I weightlift because I'm at war with old age. When I was younger, I had the feeling that if you took care of yourself well enough (which I never did anyway), then you could survive for a lot longer. He died at 40? Ahh, they smoked! See? That shit's bad for you. He drank too? A lot? Well, there you go! He should have gone jogging every day, been a complete teetotaler, and eaten his peas at dinner time. It's his own damn fault.
When my grandfather died (which is probably, in my own memoir, to be called the seminal moment in my life), I learned that death strikes early. Sure, his blood pressure was high, and he was overweight...but hell, dead because of it? It was dissapointing to say the least, but I lived with it.
When my 22-year-old buddy Ryer died, I learned that life is literally like a war, being as it doesn't matter how strong you are, how smart, how cunning, or how quick; that bullet doesn't give a shit. Even though Ryer was strong as a bull, smart, and in top physical condition, he died in about ten minutes from a ruptured spleen. There was no helping him, no valiant fight to live, no last words about his family or his traitorous "girlfriend"...no, he collapsed on the floor, never again to awake in this mortal world. His death proved to me that we are truly, in the words of whoever wrote Gladiator, "nothing but shadows and dust".
Now I smoke and drink, but still weightlift like a fiend. During the day, I lift to slowly push back the forces of old age that I fear so greatly- this is my idealistic side. During the night, under the streetlights in this brutal town, I drink massive amounts of beer and smoke cigarettes until I can't breathe in the morning- this is my existential side that permantly is stuck in that dangerous trap of thinking over and over again, "What's the point?". Every morning, I wake up, sore from lifting, sore from drinking, and my chest heaving as I exrapolate whatever is left in my lungs that wasn't burned out the night before. I put my head in my hands, and wonder where there is to go...for I know that one day, my personal Armageddon will come, and that I will either have to lift weights and lead that lifestyle, or end up smoking and drinking myself to a grave that may come sooner than I am ready for.
Calling a memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius sounds pretty arrogant (I guess it fits, being as I've heard that this guy is pretty arrogant himself). However, I've realized finally what the title really means: it is our lives. To us, all of our lives are truly heartbreaking works that one can barely even comprehend. All the sadness, the pain, the depressions, all balanced out by drive, ambition, and the triumphant nature of the human spirit that we all believe in so much. By the time we are dead, we all have more than enough stories for a novel, maybe even a Pulitzer Prize winning one....and that is what makes life beautiful.
If you don't, of course, have enough stories that you would consider your own life a heartbreaking work of staggering genius...then you were never alive in the first place.