24 Jun 2013

Nuclear Review

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When I came downstairs this morning, I found waiting in my overnight emails an Amazon offering of “Books by Dave Eggers.” I could not think why Amazon thought I wanted any titles by this particular author, but I did peruse the advertisement, and was intrigued by the title A Hologram for the King.

What could that be about, I asked myself, and clicked on the link to Amazon’s web-site.

Happily, my efforts to figure out what the book was all about led me to an utterly devastating review by one zashibis which refreshed my memory completely as to why I do not read books by Dave Eggers.

The Worst Book of 2012

About once a year I end up reading a book so resoundingly terrible, so utterly hackneyed and half-assed, so mysteriously lauded by a featherbrained coterie of newspaper review-writing hacks (here’s looking at you Michiko Katukani!) but so wonderfully devoid of any artistry or insight, that I end up finishing it out of something like the morbid fascination that makes a person rubber-neck at an especially horrific car accident. Congratulations, Mr. Eggers: in 2012 that book was yours. …

Discounting the fake setting entirely, let’s concentrate instead on Eggers’s four unforgivable failures that should be blindingly apparent to any reasonably sophisticated reader who has never even set foot in the Middle East:

1)Style. For its reliance on simple declarative sentences and its striking lack of figurative language of any sort, some are calling this novel “Hemingway-esque.” This is a terrible calumny on Papa Hemingway. The old master, it’s true, used a pared-down style to tell his stories, but the sum was always larger than the parts–a slowly pieced mosaic that (more often than not) created a striking picture of his life and times. Eggers language, in contrast, is just dumbed-down and drab, utterly lifeless on the page. A single page of Updike or Roth–nay, a single paragraph–has more artistry than you will find in this entire book. At first I thought Eggers might be trying to be “meta” by writing prose that is as sterile and color-starved as the Saudi landscape, but Eggers is too much the boy scout for that. Ever since A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius his mantra has been “Irony is bad!” so it seems highly improbable that he should intentionally be writing in a prose style that is deathly boring to mirror the dullness of life in Saudi Arabia. It is, as other reviewers have noted, a “fast read,” but only because it is the sort of prose that requires no thought whatsoever.

2)Plot. Think about it for half a second. This book asks us to believe that a washed-up, superannuated bicycle company executive *with absolutely no expertise in IT* is being sent to a remote corner of the world as the point-man for a multi-million-dollar IT presentation. Eggers doesn’t even pretend that this makes any sense at all. A modern novelist who gave half a sh*t–let’s say a David Foster Wallace–would have researched holographic presentations and the Middle Eastern IT market and presented us with at least a semi-believable character who had some compelling reason to be in Saudi. Eggers can’t be bothered. Literally, the only work-related thing Clay does during the entire novel is to make one apologetic complaint about the lack of Wi-Fi and food in the tent where the other members of his team are slated, nonsensically, to give their presentation. That’s it. For this valuable service he is supposed to earn a six-figure commission. (Sign me up!)

Along the way Clay meets a young Arab driver named Yousef who instantaneously becomes his BFF (or, even more implausibly, Clay starts thinking of him “like a son” by about their third meeting) and who continues to call him even after Clay does something (I’ll avoid the clear spoiler) that most people would have a great deal of difficulty forgiving of someone they’d known intimately all their lives. Likewise, Clay has two women (one Danish, one mixed-blood Arab) throw themselves at him after acquaintanceships measured in minutes, as though he were Ryan Gosling, and hadn’t previously been described by Eggers as an awkward, balding, dumpy, schlub with an ugly growth on his back . With the desperate European sexpot it’s merely ridiculous; with the Arab woman we’ve firmly entered Harlequin Romance territory, where millennium-old cultural taboos are brushed away as easily and as thoughtlessly as cobwebs…and where a long-haired woman snorkeling topless is somehow supposed to be less conspicuous (and less identifiable as a woman) than she would be in an ordinary swimsuit. (How does that work, exactly?)

3)Characterization. The evidence has become overwhelming. Eggers can’t do it. When he’s describing real people (as in his memoir or his various stabs at non-fiction) he does adequately. But made-up people? Nope. Just awful. The central character, Clay, is believable in no respect, a gasping fish-out-of-water who has none of the self-confidence or worldliness you’d expect of a lifelong sales executive. Instead, he comes across as a seventeen-year-old naïf away from home for the first time in his life. But at least Clay is a “developed” character with a back-story, however improbable. The same cannot be said of any of the other characters in the novel. Clay’s three American coworkers, for instance, aren’t even one-dimensional–they’re just three random names that Eggers tosses out occasionally. He can’t even be bothered to figure out what their respective roles in the presentation for the king are supposed to be or a plausible reason why they would passively sit around a tent doing absolutely nothing day after day after day. Almost all the Arabs in the novel all have walk-on parts–so forgettable that I just finished the novel but I’ve already forgotten their names. The exception is Yousef, who Eggers seems to have thrown in just so that he can’t be accused of being completely anti-Arab. But Yousef is even less believable than Clay–no Saudi who had a) fluent English or b) a rich father–let alone both–would ever, in a million years, be an ordinary chauffeur, one of the least respected jobs in Saudi Arabia, generally performed by Pakistanis earning a pittance. He really exists only as crude plot device to get Clay out of Jeddah for a few days so he can demonstrate his haplessness and insecurity in a different setting.

4)Theme. An anemic, warmed-over Death of a Salesman, missing only the final coup de grace. Enough said? So very many authors have done the late-middle-age middle-manager crisis of conscience so very much better than this: Updike, Roth, Bellow, Ford for starters . Even Ian McEwan’s Solar a few years ago–one of McEwan’s weaker novels–is a masterpiece compared to this. Likewise, Begley’s About Schmidt. So, if you’re going to go down this path yet again you’d better have something fresh to say. Eggers doesn’t. Likewise, several positive reviews make a big deal that novel is a “parable” about outsourcing. But, what, exactly does Eggers have to say about outsourcing that will be news to anybody at all? What fresh or original insight does he offer into America’s self-induced industrial decline? Nothing and none.

Too, in choosing to make the demise of Schwinn bicycles emblematic of America’s decline in manufacturing Eggers has had to simplify the company’s story to the point of absurdity. In reality, Schwinn’s failure was much more one of marketing and not anticipating the shift toward specialized bikes (i.e. racing bikes, mountain bikes, dirt bikes) than it was in moving assembly overseas. Sad-sack Clay has hopeless pipedreams of starting his own high-end custom bicycle company, and is depicted as a ridiculous figure; however, the reality is that several American companies, like Specialized Bicycle Components and Moots, do precisely that. Therefore, besides being boringly banal (“We’ve given our jobs to China!”) Eggers has succeeded in being entirely one-sided as well. The novel amounts to nothing more than a 300-page pity party.

This shallow piece of sophomoric flimflam bears exactly the same relation to literature as Fruity Pebbles bears to fruit. If AHFTK were merely a trashy novel, it wouldn’t be worth complaining about. Trashy novels have their place, and their devotees, if they’re at all self-aware, at least understand that they’re reading disposable, escapist fluff. But Eggers clearly imagines he wrote a serious novel–as do virtually all of the positive reviewers here on Amazon and elsewhere–when nothing could be further from the truth. AHFTK is kitsch: the most pernicious and unnecessary sort of artistic production on the planet. Zero stars.

Read the whole thing.

It is a real commentary on community of fashion pseudo-intellectual elite culture that this book was a National Book Award Finalist, was chosen as one of the New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of the Year, and also selected as One of the Best Books of the Year by The Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle. The airheads and fraudsters stick together.

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