Saturday, January 26, 2013


Sometimes prose will impress me as I'm reading it, but when I'm done I feel as though the pieces never really added up to anything. With his latest novel A Hologram for the King Dave Eggers produced just the opposite effect in me.  When I finished it the impact was surprisingly powerful.

In simple, clean language he tells the story of Alan Clay, a 54-year-old consultant, who has come to Saudi Arabia to demonstrate a holographic teleconferencing system to King Abdullah. He hopes to land the IT contract for the King Abdullah Economic City, a massive development being constructed in the desert outside Jeddah. Day after day Clay and his team sit in an unairconditioned tent in the barely started KAEC and wait for the arrival of the king.

There's no doubt that Eggers is paying homage to “Waiting for Godot” - the book's epigraph is a Samuel Beckett quote (“It is not every day that we are needed.”). And there's a bit of Willy Loman in the confused but hopeful Alan Clay. He began his career as a salesman in the most American of companies – Fuller Brush and Schwinn bicycles. But outsourcing has taken his job, and he has lost confidence in the superiority of American industry and his place in the new global economy. Divorced from his wife, concerned about paying his daughter’s college tuition, he struggles to understand a culture where much is forbidden but bans are ignored, where it seems impossible to get a straight answer out of anyone.

Eggers tells his story in a simple straightforward, sometimes comic, way. It's not preachy or political. But he manages to encapsulate so many of the themes of America in the twenty-first century into the travails of one decent man.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Looking Backward

I had two problems with Irish author John Banville's beautifully written Ancient Light, and I think that they are both my fault and not his.

The first is that I accidentally did not start at the beginning. As I was reading, I felt that some of the pieces of the characters' back stories were missing, and I afterward discovered what the problem was. (I always like to read a book 'cold' and only read about it when I'm done). Some of the characters had appeared in two of his earlier books, “Eclipse” and “Shroud”. The main character, aging actor Alexander Cleave, looks back on his life, including the suicide of his only daughter Cass. I kept thinking he would expand on the circumstances that led to her death, but they had been covered in an earlier book. Likewise, Alex has been asked to play the part of literary critic Axel Vander in an upcoming biographical movie, and it is clear that Vander's life had some unsavory chapters, but he too was fleshed out in an earlier novel.

As Cleave prepares for his role he reminisces about his love affair at the age of 15 with the 35-year-old mother of his best friend. We see the drama solely from his perspective, he was the very definition of a callow youth, and for the life of me I couldn't figure out what she saw in him. I know, I know, it's no different from “Lolita” with the genders flipped, but I just wasn't persuaded that Mrs. Grey (as he calls her throughout) would be attracted to this pouting, headstrong, adolescent. The sex was great for him (as he frequently remarks) and I'm sure she enjoyed it too (although he wasn't terribly concerned that she did so), but it felt too much like a male fantasy to me. My 35-year-old self would have been creeped out by the whole idea of it. I guess I don't have enough Mrs. Robinson in me.

Banville is a wonderful writer, and his thoughts on the power and the limits of memory are beautifully expressed, but this one just didn't do it for me.