A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a 2000 memoir by Dave Eggers about his life as a young adult shortly after his parents' deaths from cancer. The main story follows Dave's relationship with his younger brother Christopher ("Toph") after they move to California and Dave begins to raise him. The book also follows Dave's involvement with Might magazine and his journey home to extract significance from his past misfortunes. The novel deals with themes of family, obligation and freedom painting a complex self-portrait that is both humorous and sobering.
In Lake Forest, Illinois, Dave Eggers and his siblings, Bill, Beth and Toph (who is 13 years younger than his next-eldest sibling, Dave) endure the sudden death of their father due to lung cancer. Their mother dies a month later from stomach cancer after a long struggle.
Afterwards, Dave, Beth and Toph move to California. Bill, who does not play a large role in the plot, eventually moves to Los Angeles. The rest of the family live in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Dave and Toph begin living on their own in a dilapidated, untamed fashion. Dave struggles between moments of feeling that his approach to parenting is calculated and brilliantly designed to make Toph well-adjusted, to worrying that his hands-off approach and commitment to personal projects will make Toph maladjusted. Dave's own attempts to lead a normal life as a young adult often involve fairly ordinary encounters with women and alcohol, but are depicted by the author as somewhat surreal. Due to his parents' death and his duty to take care of Toph, he feels robbed of his youth, and this fuels his pursuit of sex and irresponsibility.
Dave and his friends organize an independent magazine called Might in San Francisco and become engrossed in the Generation X subculture. Much of the magazine's history is portrayed in the book. Dave also auditions for MTV's The Real World in a development on the theme of exhibitionism.