Thursday, 1 January 2015

A Sparse World: Dave Eggers - A Hologram for the King

Space.   Time.  Quiet.  In the West's interconnected world there is so little of all of these.  Cascading information and Big Data means we are all overpowered with everything.  Even 21st century art has fallen prey to this with the tendency to overpower the senses or shock rather than understate or imply.

Dave Eggers in some ways is a personification of this trend.  Still only in his early 40s he has poured out gallons of work - all forms of prose, establishing literary magazines, running charitable foundations.  He seems the last person that would take a breath and consider the lilies but in this remarkable novel that seems to be precisely what he is doing.

On the face of it a slight plot - a failed American executive has a (last?) shot at recapturing glory by giving a state of art presentation to the King of Saudi Arabia - as the title baldly states -to win a telecoms contract for the King's ultimate vanity project a new city in the desert - hides a novel that dissects the crisis facing the West in societal and individual terms.

What is also innovative for a 2010s work though is the prose style which echoes Hemingway in its sparse description and detatchment from the surroundings. Hemingway seemed to adopt this to illustrate emotional distance from the tumultuous events of the 20th century where most of his work was set Eggers it to illustrate the daze and confusion of his hero, a man out of time even if only by a few years.

This approach means the writing can be a bit cold but that is appropriate as the hero (rather clunkily named Alan Clay - as in man of) explicitly has shut his emotions down following the messy breakdown of his tempestuous marriage and the suicide of his neighbour. Both of these events dominate Alan's memories.

The writing style means that the surreal complex world of globalised capitalism can be explained through being understated.  The undercutting of the language with the events is also an excellent device for humour which is used throughout the book.

Clay and his much younger co -workers are left waiting in a Becketian way (Sam B's prose is also not a million miles removed from this) for the King to arrive for what seems to last an age,  To consolidate the humiliation  they are based in a tent on the fringe of the modern complex of the new age city with (horror of horrors) no wi-fi! The ennui is filled with sleep, for Alan drinking illicit moonshine and worry about death, for his younger colleagues sex and anger.

In some ways the repetition of each day and suddenly nothing happening echoes the movie Groundhog Day - yet the characters do not seem to gain any enlightenment by being held in stasis.

Alan has other worries - a lump present on his spine.  An almost constant presence in the work and thus in his mind.  It ultimately proves to be benign but it performs its task by constantly reminding him of his mortality as does his recall of the suicide and his neighbour's body after he drowned.

One criticism you could make of the work is that it perhaps is a little too allegorical - Alan in his 50s illustrating the decline of US capitalism.  He made his name and precarious fortune in sales of bicycles - a manufacturing industry - until he was wiped out by Chinese low cost manufacturing.  He is sitting  about waiting to be called by an oil rich nation playing on toys (ipads etc made by China).  There is a very funny scene of the American group being almost paralysed by the lack of wi-fi and stroking their smart phones like they were small pet animals to encourage them to connect to the net.  Ultimately and unsurprisingly the Chinese win the contract for the telecommunications as well leaving Alan to his debts and unsustainable lifestyle.  It IS obviously an allegory but I think the focus on a "successful" Western man wiped out by the credit crunch, his memories and his interaction with others lifts it from a purely period piece.

He befriends a Saudi driver who shows him the reality of life in the Kingdom. as does his wandering off the beaten track in the complex as he discovers the migrant labourers being used to  construct the King's folly of a city - which is a real thing.  This relationship does not end well - perhaps showing the distance of the US from the rest of the world. He also gets involved with two women - a Danish expat and a Saudi doctor - who remedies his lump - but proves to be quite impotent with both ; deliberately with the first and frustratingly with the latter.  Again the inability to consummate looks a little bit clunkily symbolic of modern American capitalism.

Eggers has produced a very disciplined work here - his breakthrough and brilliant memoir a Heartbreaking work of Staggering Genius overflowed with prose - he used footnotes, tiny fonts, wrote in the margin.  This does the opposite.  It has lots of space but with it discusses all the issues surrounding globalisation, personal disintegration and mortality. Although I think it slightly overdoes the allegory the characterisation and humour lifts it from that.  A great read and although it adopts an old-ish prose style it is completely on the pulse of our 2014 world.

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