books : a heartbreaking work of staggering genius
every now and then you hear of a new book. a friend tells you about it, you read about it on someone else's web site, or amazon spams you and you find a gem or two within the lines of the message. a co-worker dropped dave eggers' ahwosg (i'm using the abbreviation eggers himself uses frequently) on my desk and said "it's depressing, but really, really good." the co-worker in question is kind a west coast, ex-surfer, scientific kind of guy who never really gets excited or rapid-fire about anything really. he's just a mellow beach bum who meanders about his day coming up with new inventions and electrical doodads. so the fact that he didn't get too excited about it didn't raise any alarms. i took the book and started reading it that night, having no idea what the book was about, the author's style, the subject matter - nothing. within the pages of the book i found a truly discomforting catharsis. as i read eggers' never-ending rant about death, loss, and dissatisfaction, i felt relieved; in the moments when his pain and anguish over the loss of parental figures and the frustration in having to care for his little brother are most obvious, my own demons - the loss of my mother some two years ago - were inexplicably made tangible through the characters' behavior and vocabulary. the anger his characters embody as a result of their loss is truly felt throughout the book, as is the confusion and disenchantment with most everything the characters are forced to withstand. the most notable affect, though, was the humility i felt and the realization that i'd been a whining, self-centered child. eggers' characters' pain is only matched by their selfishness and inability to see the forest from the trees at times. throughout the book are exemplifications of rage that is misdirected - at loved ones, immigrants, co-workers, the system, the man - everywhere but at the source. throughout my own grief i have felt what eggers makes concise throughout the text - that the loss of a parental figure (or in the worst of imaginable disasters, both parental figures) - can thrust even the most well-adjusted child into a confused, selfish frenzy during which nothing makes sense. it is during those moments when eggers' rage humiliated and enlightened me. enlightenment as a result of the reminder that everyone has the capacity to feel just as i had felt for nearly two years. that, in the face of the loss of a parent everyone is filled with fear, with the despair that your protector has been taken away and that the shield you have had to hide behind has been forever withdrawn to leave you standing naked and defenseless. this was the first part of the catharsis for me - in remembering what i was told by those who had already been through it and wanted to let me know, to warn me, that it was acceptable that i feel these things. the second aspect of the catharsis was found in the humiliation. the humiliation that i hadn't listened to these people, who had come to me in my darkest hour to allow me to feel the pain and the loss. and in my selfish, pious moments of loathing and despair that i had turned away their friendly gestures and instead, relished - wallowed, more like it - in my own guilt and abandon. that i had become a self-victimizing soul that embodied eggers' "screw you if you haven't been through what i've been through" attitude, and who relished the opportunity to share his pain with the world through any of the various methodologies (screaming, kicking, complaining, whining, or just plain hiding under the covers until noon). through this very humiliation i found the most powerful catharsis since the loss of my mother - the feeling that i'd really been a spoiled little brat who had been wallowing in it because it just felt damn good to wallow in it, to remember it, and to complain about it because i'd not moved past the venting frustration and rage associated with it. in a sense, i'd forgotten what it was like to not worry about, to not think about, and to not be frustrated about, death and loss. and in that humiliation i realized the true point of his work. that the main character, like myself and many others, have the potential to engage in self-indulgent battles of self-loathing, which drives the discovery of more avenues and directions for their anger to be thrust upon and that the battle for properly placing the blame never quite stops. the humiliating part was that, in reading his descriptions of my own actions, i saw just how pointless the behavioral patterns can be and how selfish and completely self-involved the process of grieving can make anyone - even the most giddy of souls - become. in a sense, that grief contains the power to make the most childlike person turn into and embody the most childish of traits. and in those late nights, reading by the light of my nightstand and listening to the crickets outside in the yard, i felt as though eggers' work - a work truly deserving of the title's inclusion, of staggering genius - had been the gatekeeper to the prison i'd placed myself into. that this book had served as a mirror into the behavior isolating me for so long and that in that reflection my own idiosyncrasies became visible.