Tag Archives: Dave Eggers

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. 

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Filed under American literature, Fiction

Zeitoun: Novel News

      

At age fifteen or sixteen I began a semi-permanent ban on television. The no-television-under-any-circumstances policy lasted from 1999-2001, with a reprieve on Sept 11, and then again enforced as of Sept 12. I began university in 2002, and from that point until the present I haven’t owned a functional tv. I’m still a voracious consumer of news – listening to daily reports on the radio and reading newspapers in print and online – just a consumer of news without the barrage of images to accompany the stories. This consumption pattern meant that in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans I didn’t see (m)any images of the disaster. I certainly heard reports, read stories of the damage, looting, and unpredictably zealous or absent support from the authorities.

So when I read that Dave Eggers – one of my long favoured authors* – had written another news-novel (more on the genre distinction in a moment) about one family’s experience of the Hurricane, I put it on my list. I admit that what I read amounted to novel news to me in the sense of altogether unknown news about the hurricane. I had little idea that so many citizens were wrongfully and illegally detained in the aftermath of the hurricane; I wasn’t sure about the reports of rape, looting, assault (though to be fair, the novel does a fairly poor job of clarifying whether these events did in fact take place; rather, Eggers points out that there were contradictory news reports and leaves it – frustratingly – at that).

Grounding the hurricane (ha!) in the story of one family – the Zeitoun family – allows the reader to care deeply about the disaster because it has been carefully and thoroughly personalized. I wonder whether the Zeitoun family already inhabited a host of compelling issues in contemporary American life, or whether Eggers emphasized these issues in order to craft a more compelling novel (okay, so I don’t actually wonder, but it’s worth asking the question), but whatever the case, the Zeitoun’s embody questions of race, religion, patriotism, the precarious middle class in ways that read as genuine and appropriately complex.

In terms of genre I have a hard time accepting the designation of ‘non-fiction’ (as assigned by my library). The book is a novel, a historical one, perhaps, or what I’m calling here a news-novel. It has the usual plot, characters, and setting, but more crucially in the ‘novel’ designation – for this reader, anyway – it has thematic preoccupations (what can one man accomplish when set against nature? against the state?), symbols (the flood, drowning, risks of water, rainbows, bleh), and a shifting point of view. Much like What is the What the news-novel asks the reader to accept that what is written is for all intents ‘true,’ but allows that in any telling there will be fictional elements. It is, in short, a genre I like.

*I also like Dave Eggers. Those with reservations who have only read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius would do well to try reading something else he’s written. I myself enjoyed AHWOSG, but see a stark (really) difference between the autobiographical work and his news-novels and short stories. So here’s my plug for an author I adore (not like he needs a plug, but still): he’s really very good.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, American literature, Fiction, Prize Winner