Tag Archives: Dave Eggers

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

29889972

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under American literature, Fiction, Worst Books

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?: My Ongoing Love Affair With Dave Eggers

Clifford illo

Dave Eggers doesn’t know it, but I love him. Hard. I just double checked his bibliography and I’ve read most of it (see my reviews of The Circle, A Hologram for the King, and Zeitoun for proof. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and What is the What date from the dark time in the Era Before the Blog). Count me among the devotees of The Believer and McSweeney’s. I’m not ashamed to love him (why would I be? It’s not cool in the McSweeney’s universe to be sincere). I love him for the earnest efforts to share literacy, the belief in his novels in the power of storytelling to make social change, the imagination in the form and voice of his texts.

Did I love this book? No. But happily a reader can not love a book and still love an author. So there. I did like it a lot. Here’s the premise: disgruntled, slightly off-kilter, Thomas, kidnaps a heap of people so that he can interrogate them on a wide range of questions. The novel is told entirely in dialogue (the reviewers love this sort of formal play, and I did find it neat) as Thomas tries to get to the bottom of why an astronaut isn’t on a shuttle, why his friend was killed by the police, why his mother wasn’t a better mother, and, you know, why the crisis among American youth.

It’s this last question that really undergirds the novel. It’s not so much a question as it is the thesis: the promise of hard work is a lie and the lie has led to all sorts of sadness. Those who insist on perpetuating the lie – media, government, state officials, parents – do so at their own peril, as the ‘disaffected youth’ who are confronted by the gap between the promise and their experience are set up for all kinds of volatile response as a result. Cue kidnapping a senator.

Why didn’t I love it? The form felt a bit forced. The argument a bit overwrought (and while I can’t imagine any other way of ‘stating’ the argument in a book that is entirely statements I did think Eggers could have trusted me more to work out the argument (come to think of it I think I had the same complaint in The Circle).

Despite these annoyances, it’s a timely book for the start of another academic year. As students flood my campus I wonder what might happen if I stopped each and every one of them and asked the same kinds of pointed questions Thomas does: why are you here? what are  you hoping to accomplish? what is it you believe the point of this whole thing to be? stop using your credit card (okay, not a question). How would I answer these questions? How do I channel my own frustration at not having the job I was promised – despite ticking the right boxes? The answer of course is I read the book and it demanded I ask myself and reflect. And I don’t need to stop each and every one, I just need to get them to all read Eggers (easy, right?).

1 Comment

Filed under American literature, Fiction, Funny

The Circle: May it be Unbroken

circleHere is the good thing about Dave Egger’s *The Circle*: the premise. And what’s the premise? A tech company “The Circle” in the not-so-distant future *cough Google cough* has saturated the market to the point where it controls access to all information and uses this ‘power’ to control all spending, government, actions, individual thought. Protagonist Mae begins the novel indifferent to the power of the Circle, but becomes increasingly infatuated and then utterly committed to the ideology of the Circle – “all must be known” and “information is a human right” and “privacy is theft.” She is intended to serve as a reader-surrogate so that the reader might recognize the ways in which her current unconcern or apathy about the reach of global information conglomerates could readily bleed into a) total obligation to and investment in the conglomerate, b) an inability to think independently or to be alone and c) the totalitarian endgame of one entity (re: company) controlling all aspects of a citizenry. That is to say this is a book with a partisan message: start thinking seriously about the power of Google, start actively questioning reasonable limits of information access/sharing, start protesting the erosion of privacy and public space.

And that’s where the good in the novel ends. The premise is executed with a clumsiness and heavy-handedness that made me suspicious of Egger’s trust in the intelligence of his readers. And in the clumsy and heavy-handed I was left with a book that was still brilliant in its idea, rich in its setting, but entirely frustrating to read.

George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I Write” posits that one of the principle reasons for writing is to articulate and argue a political position. It isn’t, I don’t think, a terrifically trendy way to write or read fiction in 2013. And so perhaps it’s the decidedly aggressive political argument of *The Circle* that rubs me the wrong way – not the message itself, rather, the heavy-handed way the novel goes about making its argument. It lacks elegance, subtlety or complication. In its rush to make sure the reader gets the allegory and adopts the position of protecting privacy the novel risks negating the potential disruption of the allegory itself. I became less unsettled by the message (and at first it really was compelling) and more annoyed by how little Eggers trusted me to get the idea without Being Showed It In Capital Letters: ALLEGORY.

This heavy-handedness is most obvious (and annoying) in the character development of Mae. We’re supposed to – I imagine – see her casual decline into full acceptance of all things Circle. We’re supposed to see the semi-climactic scene where she’s in a room with one of the Wise Men (really. did I mention it’s heavy-handed?) getting a lesson on the selfishness of secrets and the rationality/generosity of open and unfettered access to individual actions, thoughts and beliefs as some kind of moment of revelation and change. Except all this reader could concentrate on was how *obvious* the whole thing was. The move from dependence on the company – excellent health care! fancy workplace! prestige! – to acceptance of its doctrines for pragmatic reasons – I’ll tweet and email because I’m told to! – to an adoption of the dogma because people are unthinking and pliable enough to assume any ideology if exposed to it long enough.

So while I’ll recommend *The Circle* because I think the (albeit grossly heavy-handed) message is worth considering, I do so with the caveat that if you’re already suspicious of the influence of Google then go ahead and skip this one. However, if you were – like me (and I’ll admit it) – apathetic about questions of surveillance, privacy, access-to-information, public space then do read it. Or at least, do read the first 75 pages. It makes a compelling – if also tenacious and indefatigable – argument well worth considering and acting upon.

 

4 Comments

Filed under American literature, Book Club, Fiction, Prize Winner

A Hologram for the King: Shimmered, but didn’t fully form

I love Dave Eggers. In the unabashed, sincere way that would likely be scorned by the irony-lovers of McSweeney’s, I just love him. Since reading *A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius* I’ve lined up for everything he’s written. I’ve found his work playful, smart, (sincere) and wise. I’ve marvelled at his triumphant shifts in genre and narrative voice as he shows naysayers that he’s not (simply) the navel-gazing memoirist of AHWOSG (as it is known), but a writer of robust talent able to shift in mood, tone and voice in ways that marvel only in comparison with his other works (which is to say, each individual work doesn’t read like a self-referential return to earlier works, but rather a reader who has read his past works can draw these comparisons and applaud the dexterity of his craft). 

So it is a tempered criticism I offer of *A Hologram for the King* – one marked by my recognition that I could be (simultaneously) (and unintentionally) holding Eggers to a higher standard *because* I admire him so much OR I could be overly generous because Eggers holds a choice place in my pantheon of favourite authors (a blog for another day, suffice to say John Steinbeck, Margaret Laurence and William Trevor keep him in good company). 

The plot (with *Spoilers*) in a few sentences? Alan, failed businessman, has a last ditch opportunity to make his fortune selling holographic technology to Saudia Arabia. After a series of Kafkaesque bureaucratic failures he succeeds in delivering his pitch, but fails to land the deal when the Saudi king opts to go – as did the rest of American business – with the cheaper Chinese firm. Meanwhile Alan struggles to make sense of his middleage, his failed fatherhood, his frustrated sexuality and his degenerating body: he, like America, is falling apart and ailing. 

It’s a book that masters the Thematic Moment – the repeated realization that the description or the dialogue is meant to be Symbolic and Important and Worth Noting. Case in point a scene where Alan wades into the waters outside the (holographic) city (note the holographic city is in and of itself meant to be Symbolic and Worth Noting) and registers the difference in this water from that of his home. Heady times for one wading his feet. It’s only a complaint insofar as each scene has this predetermined weight that makes the reading feel unnecessarily heavy: we are embarking in each paragraph – willing or not – on something thematically momentous. The end result is that the character, the plot and the scenes do not unfold with nuance or grace, but rather a sort of clumsy seriousnessness that weighs down potential authenticity of charm. 

Still, this is a criticism that recognizes its own limitations. I was frustrated with the lack of “events” in the plot even while I realized the thematic importance of showing the impotence of the narrator (see? am I being overly generous?). I was troubled by the manner in which all other characters read as placeholders for characteristics or affects desired or needed by our narrator (Alan), even while I realized the “holographic” metaphor –  as one meant to remind us that most, if not all of our interactions with other people, institutions, identities – requires the characters to be void of depth or substance. 

So while I can argue the literary merits of the artistic choices, and could write a persuasive essay on the thematic significance of Alan’s tumor, or Alan’s near (but again failed) shooting of a young Arab boy, or the contrasting significance of indoor/outdoor settings – and I’d believe all of this to be true and earnest, the truth is: I just didn’t like the book. 

There, I said it: I just didn’t enjoy it. I wanted, so much, to love it. And I think it has much to recommend it. I think it makes great material for teaching tenth grade English, or American foreign and trade policies. I just don’t think it’s one of much enjoyment. 

2 Comments

Filed under American literature, Fiction