A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius


This edition of A.H.W.O.S.G. contains countless changes, sentence by sentence, many additions to the body of the text, and it also contains this, an appendix, featuring corrections, notations, updates, tangential remarks and clarifications. This appendix, you might be interested to know, was supposed to, and almost did, accompany the original hardcover edition of the book. A version of it was nearly complete, when its author made the mistake of telling a writer friend about it, with, let's admit, a certain smugness. I was, I figured, the first to think of adding a corrective appendix to a nonfiction work, one meant to illuminate the many factual and temporal fudgings necessary to keep this, or really any, work of nonfiction, from dragging around in arcane and endless explanations of who was exactly where, and when, etc. So: the corrective appendix was being prepared, and was to follow the original text, a few pages after the final "finally". But upon telling this writer-friend about the idea, she said, while looking much too ravishing over an open candle and with wet hair, "Oh, right, like Mary McCarthy." There was, in the distance, the sound of thunder, and of lightning striking, presumably, a kitten. "Um, what do you mean, pray tell, Just like Mary McCarthy?" I thought, while, fear-stricken, managing only "Huh?" She noted that McCarthy had done almost the same thing in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, a book about which I was of course unware, because I am a moron. She explained that after each chapter recounting various episodes from McCarthy's youth, there was a slightly shorter chapter, set in italics, wherein the author dismantled the narrative, in favor of the unshaped truth.

Each corrective chapter, the writer-friend pointed out, began with something like: Well, it didn't happen exactly that way... And this was exactly my goal in adding the appendix in the first place: it afforded the opportunity to be completely factual about things that in the narrative had to be compressed or altered slightly so the book could continue apace. But after this illuminating dinner, I sought and found a copy of McCarthy's book (paperback edition with horrific cover), and after reading McCarthy's perfect execution of the idea, I abandoned my own appendix, not wanting to invest too much in a notion already used. And besides, I felt, the stupid goddamn book was obviously long enough. Thus, about 40 pages of prime appendix were scrapped.

But now, about eight brutal and then exhilarating and then more-brutal-than-before months after the book was originally published, I've gone ahead and finished the appendix, for better or worse, much because it was heartily encouraged by this paperback version's diligent and inspiring editor, Ms. Jenny Minton. But first please note: If you did not like the Acknowledgments section, you will not like this. If you liked the Acknowledgments section, then chances are you will like this, unless your tastes have changed, in which case I am not sure what you will think. In either case, this appendix contains the following:

a) CORRECTIONS: This element has already been spoken about. In many places, where I've had to or chose to round the truth up or down, I have here set the record perfectly straight. Most of these corrections, however, are relevant only to the book's first half or so, since the second half of the book was harder to look at at this point, thus has been left largely intact.

b) CLARIFICATIONS: In the next 40 pages or so, I'm pretty much going to go ahead and explain much of the book, albeit often in very small type.

C) UPDATES: Many passages or words or names in the main text have given rise to updates about the whereabouts and howabouts of certain characters or places. People always ask, for instance, about how Shalini is doing, or how Toph is faring, etc. Herein are some, but not all, of the applicable answers. Briefly, about those characters not mentioned elsewhere in the appendix: Bill: fine; Beth: fine; Zev/Paul/ Moodie/Marny/Lance: fine; Kirsten: fine; John: still looking for the answer, or the silver bullet.


a) This appendix need not be read to understand or enjoy the book proper. It is only for: 1) the author; 2) those with extra time; 3) those with interest disproportionate to what is warranted.

b) These addenda were written at different times. Though most of this section was written, or at least revised, at the same time--September 2000--a few parts of the appendix were written much earlier, and have been left as they were, and their period of origination is indicated.

c) The number of changes to the text was, a few pages ago, hugely exaggerated. The plan was to impose many many more changes and corrections, but when it came down to it, I just couldn't, at this point, spend much time in the main text. It was uncomfortable. It was extremely uncomfortable. In the body of the book, that which starts from the book's other side, I planned to make so, so many changes in the line-by-line text. Many times, when I was reading the book aloud at this or that bookstore, some word choice or passage appalled me to a point where I'd have to stop, mid-sentence, and furiously cross out the offending words, much to the amusement of the attendees, who thought I was kidding. The cause of the problem, in part, was the speed at which some of the book was written, and the difficulty I had in revising it. I didn't write it quickly because I wanted it written quickly. I wrote it quickly because, frankly, it was like writing, while drunk, in a sauna. Not drunk. On speed. Anxiety mixed with physical discomfort mixed with a faint warm and comfortable feeling, but tempered knowing that if I stayed too long in this place I would suffocate or bleed to death, after banging my fists and head against the humid wooden walls. It was at first warm and for a while the sweating felt good, but then some asshole kept putting water on those rocks, or whatever they do to make it hotter, and then I couldn't breathe, and I would flee the room where I was writing, and flee the book, and would dread, dread like one dreads seeing a bad-smelling distant elderly relative Iying prone in a rank and wrong nursing home, going back to that time, to that book. I'm still amazed that I finished it in the first place, and am also surprised when I see some passages, because, frankly, there are sentences I wrote and never reread; there are pages I never looked at again. And the really problematic thing is that right now, I'm sitting here, in late September of 2000, and I have at this moment four days to finish whatever revisions I'd like to make, and I have been stalling on doing so for two months, for the same reason--because I really don't like being in that goddamned sauna, a sauna full of family and friends--at different ages, all looking at me curiously, all under the most clinical light. And I don't know if they hate me or love me or pity me, some combination thereof, or want to see me flayed and eaten by crows, or wish that I would just quietly go away. So the first chapter in particular will have almost no changes, because I just, a few minutes ago, tried to get in there, and after scrolling through the first half-page, I was already having trouble breathing. Now, twenty minutes later, I am still having trouble breathing. I hate being in that chapter again, in that brown low-ceilinged room. I can feel the air in that room of fake wood paneling, and smell those medicinal smells, can smell the bile, which has a smell, a robust scent, and I can see her eyes, and I didn't like her eyes that way, so tired and angry and yellowed and sunken, when they should be bright and angry and laughing and piercing and able to murder people and love people--exploding and infinite were her eyes!--and I don't want to feel the texture of that couch, that cheap synthetic velour, or walk around on that worn-through white wall-to-wall, or see the coffee table where my father put his sock feet, and I don't want to knock over a glass resting on the couch's sidetable, where he kept his death-bringing accoutrement, and I don't want to look out onto the driveway and hope no one pulls up in some stupid big car, bringing food they baked for us, or flowers, or wanting to come in and talk, the women with their fur and perfume, obscene, and I don't want to hide in the bathroom and look through the window over the toilet and see that fucking yard, the weeds closing in on the grass, year after year after year, no matter how much I cut that lawn the weeds moved in. And now, here in Brooklyn, I want to go outside, to the park maybe, but it's raining, and it's cold rain, and Toph's not home, so there would be nothing to do anyway so fuck it.

There won't be all that many changes after all. There are a few new passages in the main text, three to be exact, and they all involve Toph and me, and some things we did. Otherwise, as much as I felt I needed to, I've left my mistakes intact. The book was written by a 28-year-old person, and that 28-year-old person was trying to channel the thoughts he had when he was 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26 and 27. So I'm going to let all those people talk and act as they did, for better or worse.

d) Many names have been changed.

Yes, and I've taken out the phone numbers, too. Writing the first edition, I placed much weight on employing as many real names as possible, using their actual working phone numbers, everything, to prove a point that one could be completely factual, and still tell a story that felt and read novelistic, somewhat timeless, at least fluid. Changing all the names or, worse, making it all fictional (semi-autobiographical) seemed cowardly and silly. And so before publication, I approached people whose names were used, and asked their permission. All readily agreed, but now, many of the people who initially said yes have had second thoughts. A typical conversation before publication:

"Is it okay to use your real name?"

"Sure, why not?"

Typical conversation a month after publication:

"Would it be possible to remove my name?"

"Of course. Why?"

"Well, no offense, but I really didn't think anyone would see the damn book."



Bold Type

Bold Type
Bold Type
Excerpted from A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. Copyright © 2001 by Dave Eggers. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.