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Heroes of the Frontier: Preview of Dave Eggers’ New Novel (That should have been a short story; Or scrapped)

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I am a Dave Eggers completist. I think because I really, really loved A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius I keep reading everything he writes hoping to recapture the joy of that first read (why did I love AHWOSG so much? Probably because it was the first thing I’d read like it. A like every first encounter aren’t we all always trying to get back to recapture that moment of intoxicating newness?).

But with Heroes of the Frontier the fierce loyalty of fresh love has faded to embarrassment to be (seen as) still attached to the overly confident novel, unaware of its lackluster performance and reliant on the coattails of previous success. But I want to love Eggers, and so I read for kernels to warrant continued affection: Eggers writes good comedy. Josie, a former-dentist, has quasi-kidnapped her children and taken them into the wilds of Alaska so that she can find meaning. Some funny scenes ensue. Some smart writing.

But given the sole source of conflict in the novel is Josie’s uncertainty about whether her life has, or could have, or ever had, meaning (and whether children might be what we all pin our hopes on for meaning, but find never live up to those expectations), Eggers has a challenge in maintaining interest. There’s only so much hand wringing, soul searching while drinking wine and staring at the stars that one reader can tolerate. (Especially when it’s a reprieve, almost entirely, of the hand wringing of Your Fathers, Where Are They?) Which is to say the psychological conflict and drama doesn’t have enough complexity or resonance to do much but bore. Loathe as I am to suggest that short stories might have any merit at all, I have to say I think this 300 page beast of different campsites and highway driving could be suitably pared down to a couple of nights in a tent and the same realization: we make meaning in what we do and who we do it with, and it’s never going to come from money or things or external validation (alas).

The book hits shelves later in July. If you, like me, can’t resist Eggers (like you can’t resist Atwood), you know you’ll read it anyway, so go, read it, and let me know if I’ve gotten it all wrong. If you can resist the siren call, then go see the movie for A Hologram for the King and let that be your Eggers fix. Plus Tom Hanks. And let me know whether the movie is any good.

Want other Eggers reviews? See Zeitoun, the Circle,  earlier novels predate the blog.

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Filed under American literature, Fiction, Worst Books

The Heart Goes Last: Your Contract to Read All Atwood Has Been Voided. Thank God.

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As a student of Can Lit I am always going to get the new Margaret Atwood novel. It was in the contract I signed when I chose my field. Or did I not read the fine print? Or bother to inquire? If I had I might not have so readily signed on because at a certain point (as in The Heart Goes Last) reading the new Atwood is an obligation and chore, rather than pleasure and delight.

I jest about contract signing because this novel-that-ought-to-have-been-a-short-story-but-who-is-going-to-tell-that-to-Atwood focuses on the ways people ‘freely’ choose their subjugation and constraint. Yawn hegemony. Made more complex, perhaps, by the setting of a post-depression era North America where 50% unemployment means the collapse of society as we know it. You could read other reviews that will praise the way this question of choice is taken up in relation to technology. You won’t read that here because I read this as – at best – an obvious consideration of the reach of technology in regulating individual life and desire. You don’t have to look far – *cough* The Circle – for similar, if far better executed, allegories and literary prophesies.

*spoiler alert* Though it’s not much of a spoiler as so much of this plot is either predictable or uninspired: Stan and Charmaine, out of work, sign on to live in Consilience, a town that provides employment and safety. The trade off is the town is selling body parts and making people into sex slaves. The bit about working for a month in a prison and a month in the town is neither necessary to know nor interesting in the plot, it seems to be there just for shock value.

Had this been an interesting novel (or a compressed and worthy short story) I might have been taken with the ideas explored around individual choice. The tone of the novel blames Stan and Charmaine for their choice to sign on to Consilience, as if they ought to have read the fine print or been brave enough to choose ‘freedom over security’ (that familiar binary). One of the unitarian principles I appreciate is the idea that individuals have choice, but choice within constraints. That what we can do for a more just society is to create conditions under which individuals have the maximum range of choice and are equipped and supported in choosing. (This push to create ‘choice conditions’ is part of the reason the church has such an aggressive (if you can call unitarians aggressive about anything) social justice mandate as part of their non-doctrine-doctrine.) So sure, you can make an argument that the two ought to have chosen violence over the promises of the town, they ought to have known such a thing was (in every way the adage) too good to be true. But you could also make an argument they – like we – made a choice inasmuch as they could choose anything within their constraints. It bears repeating, however, that the novel doesn’t do much – at all – to further this line of questioning or explore this nuance. It simply blames them – and us – for being dupes and moves on.

So don’t be a dupe. Give this one a pass. You can choose how to spend your reading time, even if I can’t.

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Filed under Bestseller, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Worst Books