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I’ve just finished reading Dave Eggers’ autobiographical novel A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius.
When Eggers is a young man both his parents die of cancer within a short period of time and he winds up looking after his younger brother. He then moves (with his brother) to California where he starts a satirical counterculture magazine (this is the early nineties, when such things are new and exciting).
I read this book with mixed feelings, mostly positive. What may have lessened my enjoyment here and there wasn’t any fault in the story or the writing (which is excellent), but the fact that certain aspects struck a bit close to home.
As someone who has lost a parent to cancer I found his descriptions not only of the events and situations but also of the emotions involved to be refreshingly (if not painfully) truthful – Eggers recognises that these situations are not neat, clean set pieces, and even at the height of life-and-death drama people will still behave as people – fallible, selfish, inappropriate – and that that doesn’t in any way lessen the significance or emotion of what’s happening.

Quite aside from that, Eggers talks at various points about his desire to be surrounded with people, the idea of reaching out and grasping onto the people around you, of drawing them together and creating a lattice of positive energy that sustains you. This idea really appeals to me, and every success I’ve had in the last few years has been with the help of other people. The idea of a community that sustains those involved, and becomes something greater than the sum of its parts is central to what we’re trying to do with Makeshift, something I think Auckland could really do with. Eggers’ magazine eventually folded after everyone burnt out and began hating it, but as he says himself the magazine, and its surrounding culture, were essentially bitter, angry at the world, dealing with it with sarcasm and sneering. That sort of anger isn’t sustainable, either for a person or a community. What I took from this book is that we should try to get past being so angry – not deny it, because we’re all angry in one way or another, it’s a healthy reaction to real life sometimes – but try to work out a way to get through it, and change it into something positive and useful.

Or something. I don’t know, if I’ve learnt anything from this book it’s how pointless it is to try and make life-defining statements in your twenties. Anyway, cheers Nick for lending me the book, and I recommend it to anyone else who likes a good read.

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