A Hologram for the King Where is our new millennium Norman Mailer? It's startling, 50 years on, to look back at the work of Mailer in the 1960s from "The Presidential Papers" to "The Armies of the Night" and see such unabashed ambition, such reckless audacity and such a stubborn American readiness to try to save the Republic from itself and bring it back to its original promise.
Mailer's very titles "Advertisements for Myself," "An American Dream" told us he was on a mission, committed to the transformation of country and self, and even as he gave himself over to unremittingly private (and epic) meditations on God, the Devil, cancer and plastics, he was also determined to remake the civic order. He ran for mayor of New York City, he tried his hand at directing movies and in 1955 he helped start an alternative weekly known as The Village Voice. Part of the exhilaration of Mailer was that he cared so ravenously even when he failed; he was shooting for the moon even when he shot himself in the foot. Dave Eggers comes from a much more sober, humbled, craft loving time, and his latest novel is the opposite of a failure: it's a clear, supremely readable parable of America in the global economy that is haunting, beautifully shaped and sad. But for all the difference between their generations, you can feel in Eggers some of the hunger, the range and the unembarrassedly serious engagement with America and its ideals that gave Mailer's work such force. Eggers asserted his bravado along with some tonic self mockery in the very title of his first book, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" (a title of which Mailer would have been proud); he followed it up with a very different kind of book, a novel, "You Shall Know Our Velocity," about the impenitent determination of two young Americans to travel the world giving money away. Yet even as he has written seven substantial books in 12 years, Eggers has also established his own publishing house, bristling with attitude and backward looking invention. He's started two magazines whose names (Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern and The Believer) openly declare their interest in homemade whimsy and optimism or, you could say, in the past and in the future. He's established nonprofit writing and tutorial centers across the country and, in his spare minutes, helped write two feature movies, "Where the Wild Things Are" and "Away We Go." Like Mailer, he's almost underrated precisely because he's so ubiquitous and dares us to mock him with his unapologetic ambitions. Yet where Mailer was consciously working in a deeply American grain, with his talk of revolution and transcendence, Eggers speaks for a new America that has to think globally and can't be sure where the country fits on the planetary screen. And where Mailer was bent on showing us how America could remake the world, Eggers, with ferocious energy and versatility, has been studying how the world is remaking America. It's invigorating, in that context, to see how Dave Eggers, born in Boston to classic fifth generation Irish stock (his mother was a McSweeney) and raised in Lake Forest, Ill., has devoted himself to chronicling the shifting melting pot, seeming to tell others' stories more than his own. In his fourth major book, "What Is the What," he gave us a nonfiction novel about Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese "Lost Boy" who survives wars at home and refugee camps abroad only to find that his problems are by no means behind him when finally he gets to Atlanta, and the Land of the Free. In his next (nonfictional) work, "Zeitoun," Eggers turned the story of Hurricane Katrina into a brilliantly structured and propulsive narrative whose all American protagonist just happened to be a Muslim house painter brought up in the Syrian coastal town of Jableh, married to a former Southern Baptist from Baton Rouge and eager to construct a new life through hard work and tending to others. Continue reading the main story In both "Zeitoun" and "What Is the What," Eggers's heroically self effacing prose revealed the people we blindly walk past on our city streets every day. "Zeitoun," in fact, began as part of a Voice of Witness series of oral histories through which Eggers is hoping to inform us of those faraway places whose destinies are ever more central to our own. In " a kind of "Death of a Globalized Salesman," alight with all of Arthur Miller's compassion and humanism Eggers at once pushes that project forward and, characteristically, gives us an entirely different and unexpected story. Alan Clay is a 54 year old self employed consultant (as everyday and malleable as his name) first introduced on the 10th floor of a glassy Hilton in Jeddah, where he's come to try to redeem his fortune, and America's. supplier in the world." Day after day, the king fails to arrive and the Americans lie around, fret about the absence of Wi Fi and kill time in the emptiness. Desperate for something to happen, Alan lances a cyst on his neck with a crude knife and later a needle just to feel the blood flow. Scene after scene is so clear and precise "A plume of smoke unzipped the blue sky beyond the mountains," a "pair of headlights appeared as a blue sunrise beyond the ridge's ragged silhouette" that it's easy to overlook just how strong and well wrought the writing is. The vast empty spaces of the desert stand, of course, for the holographic projections that now determine Alan's (and America's) destiny, while Saudi Arabia, a puritan kingdom where everyone seems to be boozing on the sly, is the perfect Other that constantly confounds and defeats its New World visitors. In the long, empty days Alan befriends a penguin shaped young Saudi who tools around in a 30 year old Caprice and sports Oakley sunglasses above his handmade sandals (he once spent a year in Alabama); he meets lonely expats and looks in on an embassy debauch where a man in a spacesuit is "feigning weightlessness." Every detail perfectly advances a vision of American aspiration at a time of economic collapse and midlife crisis: just two floors below a gleaming condo in the desert that speaks for the virtual future that the Saudis (and Americans) are counting on is another room where 25 foreign laborers are squeezed into a tiny space, exchanging blows over a discarded cellphone. Yet even at home, we come to see, Alan has been living in a house for sale where he's taken for a "ghost"; he's run out of money to pay his daughter's college bills, and the only one who has ever fought for him is his "constantly cruel ex wife." Over a long career working for Fuller Brush and Schwinn bicycles and a dozen others, he's somehow encouraged the outsourcing of manufacturing that has led to both him and his country becoming redundant. In Florida, he eats from vending machines, and in his home in suburban Boston he watches old Red Sox DVDs again and again. At the book's opening, his neighbor Charlie, who's recently discovered transcendentalism and speaks (as Mailer might have) of "grandeur and awe and holiness," walks into a lake to his death. In Alan's America, even Walden Pond has become a cesspool. Newsletter Sign Up Continue reading the main story Eggers's command of this middle management landscape is so sure and his interest in the battle between humanity and technology so insistent that his book might almost be a DeLillo novel written for the iPhone Generation, though delivered by DeLillo's more openhearted and Midwestern nephew. Eggers's inhabiting of the terms and tics of a distinctly American consciousness is as remarkable as, in earlier books, his channeling of Sudanese and Syrian sensibilities. He knows how businessmen, faced with a terrible proposal, will say, "Let's table it for now"; he registers how door to door salesmen point out, "A stranger rings, a friend knocks"; he cites the wisdom of Jack Welch. To a world of glass and emptiness "I feel like a pane of glass that needs to be shattered," Alan tells another consultant he brings his rather old fashioned interest in neighborhood values and service. And his Saudi Arabia sounds to me note perfect, from the soldier seated in a beach chair next to a Humvee, soaking his feet in an inflatable pool, to the secret drag races in the desert. Nearly every action in the book carries a symbolic resonance: each time Alan is approached by a foreign woman, he becomes disengaged and, in fact, impotent, and when finally he does go into a local hospital for his cyst, he's worked on by a team made up of Chinese, English, German, Italian, Russian and mongrel Lebanese medical professionals. Yet underneath the global blueprint is a story human enough to draw blood. Anyone who's traveled will recognize the plaintiveness and vague menace of the Saudis who loom before Alan, or the likable Saudi Panza who tries to scroll to a Fleetwood Mac song on his iPod as Alan prepares to tell him another corny joke. The buddy movie is clearly a significant form for Eggers, but, like Hollywood, he has upgraded it: from the frat boy do goodism of "You Shall Know Our Velocity" to a vehicle that features a young Muslim and oakley zero an aging American, and asks what happens when velocity gives out. At first glance, a reader might wonder what a story about a flailing American businessman trying to win a contract over the Chinese in the Saudi desert has to do with Eggers's celebrated memoir about losing both of his parents within five weeks at the age of 21, and tending to his younger brother. But the strength of all his work comes from his sense of loss and pain, mixed with his decidedly American wish to try to bring his orphaned characters to a provisional shelter. It's Eggers's tragic sense "Were scars the best evidence of living?" he writes here that gives fiber and nuance to his desire for something better, and ensures that his hope for some kind of understanding never becomes merely sentimental. Alan speaks for something essential to Eggers and poignant in his constant oscillation between the wish to do the right thing and his awareness that he doesn't have a clue what the right thing might be. Like Mailer, in other words, Eggers has a vision, with the result that there's nothing random about the projects he takes on or the ways he pursues them; to the casual observer, he may seem all over the place, but underneath the wild diversity of his interests is a profoundly searching and meticulous craftsman who could hardly be more focused. " is, among other things, an anguished investigation into how and where American self confidence got lost and in the central word another lonely expat uses for Alan "defeated." At one point, a fellow passenger on a plane mentions to Alan how even the Statue of Liberty is depicted moving forward, so committed is America to the future tense; four pages on, Alan recalls being told, at length, about how an all important contract for blast resistant glass in Freedom Tower, built on the ashes of the World Trade Center, has been given to a Chinese company, working (to compound the insult) from an American patent. In places, the book becomes almost a nostalgic lament for a time when life had stakes and people worked with their hands, knew oakley online shopping struggle. Alan's father, a World War II veteran who still has shrapnel in his lower back, rages at his son for helping to take business abroad; the deeper sorrow is the blue and white oakleys suggestion that moral clarity and a sense of purpose also got outsourced in the process. As he mourns the decline of a time when men were more in touch with their animal selves and an outer wilderness could save us from a wilderness within, Alan reminisces about the hunting trips he took with his dad as a boy, thinks about the time he took his daughter to see one of the last launchings of the space shuttle at Cape Canaveral (and they met an old fashioned, in fact Maileresque, American hero and explorer, an astronaut). When Alan is invited by a local friend to a Saudi mountain village, he tries to reach back to a world of John Wayne certainties and, cradling a gun, blows up the one human connection he's so happily made. This may all sound a little too much like metaphor or romanticism but Eggers's sense of loss is hard earned and his feeling for his characters as affectingly real as his epigraph from Beckett ("It is not every day that we are needed"). At times, his book reminds one of Douglas Coupland's deeply wistful tales of Generation X's search for belief and direction, at other times of the weightless suburban drifters of Haruki Murakami's world, all but longing (in "The Wind Up Bird Chronicle," say) for an earlier era of intensity and war. A sense of impermanence and possible disaster is always very close in Eggers's work here it's sometimes devouring and that is what makes his good nature and hopefulness so rending, and so necessary. Every now and then he pulls back from his engagingly stumbling characters to suggest a larger order: "The work of man is done behind the back of the natural world. When nature notices, and can muster the energy, it wipes the slate clean again." In the end, what makes " is the conviction with which Eggers plunges into the kind of regular working American we don't see enough in contemporary fiction, and gives voice and heft to Alan's struggles in an information economy in which he has no information and there's not much of an economy. At one point, with nothing to do, Alan starts writing to his daughter to persuade her to forgive her mother, the ex wife who has all but destroyed him. "People think you're able to help them and usually you can't," he writes. "And so it becomes a process of choosing the one or two people you try hardest not to disappoint.
" Such is the fragility of Alan's situation, though, that even that find oakley store modest hope seems far from guaranteed, mostly because Alan is such a non virtual man, the opposite of a hologram. Norman Mailer probably hated the fact that many of us consider his great, essential narrative to be his "nonfiction novel" about Gary Gilmore, "The Executioner's Song"; the whole long, tragic story is delivered with extraordinary documentary fidelity and restraint, and yet only someone as obsessed as Mailer was with rebellion and possession could have invested the tale with such intensity. In much the same way, Eggers has developed an exceptional gift for opening up the lives of others so as to offer the story of globalism as it develops and, simultaneously, to unfold a much more archetypal tale of struggle and loneliness and drift.
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