Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Hollow Man for the King

In a recent review of Jonathan Tropper's book "One Last Thing Before I Go", Ron Charles proclaims it to belong to the "Whiny Man" category of literature.What is Whiny Man literature? It's a schlubby little corner of the publishing market in which sad-sack George Constanza types endlessly bemoan their past failures while setting themselves up for new ones. Again. And again. And again. And... again.

They fail at their jobs. They fail at their marriages. They've failed their children. Their bodies are failing them. The only thing they haven't failed at is failure, but were they to really make a conscious go at it, they might succeed (thereby failing).

But that's okay because, as the adage states, failure builds character, right? Not exactly. The authors indeed use failure to build their characters. But it's a monolithic architecture of ineptitude they construct to place upon these weak, fleshy foundations. The failure doesn't make them stronger or more resilient. It just further defeats and deflates them. When the end of the book arrives, it's a relief. Like getting off a plane when you've spent the last five hours seated next to a depressive bore.

As you might guess, I'm not a fan.

So I was supremely bummed out to find that Dave Eggers' new book, A Hologram for the King, is a Whiny Man book. Well, that's not exactly fair. It's a political allegory dressed as a Whiny Man book. Or perhaps it's a Whiny Man book masquerading as a political allegory. Depends at which way you want to squint at it. Regardless, I was hoping for much more from Eggers.

The premise is that an American consultant goes to Saudi Arabia in order to try to get a contract for an IT company to wire a yet to be constructed city. The consultant, Alan Clay, has spent most of his life working in the bicycle industry (as an executive of Schwinn specifically) making things cheaper and more efficient by moving production overseas. He did so until the American bicycle industry pretty much collapsed and he found himself out of work. Oops. If he can land this deal, it would be his redemption and hopefully get him out of the crushing debt he's accumulated by other ill-fated ventures.

But there's a hitch. King Abdulla is a busy man and cannot guarantee his presence at any given time. They must wait until he arrives. It could be days, weeks, or months. So Alan and his three barely fleshed out young IT staffers (who spend 90% of their cameo time asleep or with heads buried in their laptops) show up to a tent in the desert every morning in the hopes that the King will arrive. When he does, they will give him a whiz bang presentation of American ingenuity in the form of a live holographic meeting with a London based representative of their company. The King will be impressed with their inventiveness and give them the contract. And all Alan's problems will be solved. Or they would could they get a good wi-fi signal out in the tent.

Instead of having a forward moving plot, we get a bunch of navel gazing from Alan while he waits. Guilt ridden reminiscences of being complicit in the weakening of American industry. Anxiety about telling his daughter he won't be able to finish paying for he education since he's broke. Not so fond memories of his crazy, free spirit of an ex-wife. And to cap it all, a worrisome lump on his neck he is sure is cancer.

Occasionally we get some respite from this pity fest in the form of Yousef, Alan's wise cracking cab driver. In comparison to Yousef, the other characters surrounding Alan to prop up this story seem drab and dim. When the two of them are in the car talking back and forth, it feels like the narrative builds momentum. It also feels like Eggers is having fun. Finally.

I'd like to point out that this is not a bad book. In fact, the style of Eggers' writing carries you along no matter how deary the subject. The problem with the book stems largely from matters of expectation. I expect Eggers, on account of his past work, to give the characters heart. Humanity. Oddly, it seems to lack in this book. Alan felt as if he were a cross stitch of "important issues". Not a real person. He was a necessary, but sloppy tool to address the larger topics.

The main focus seems to be documenting a moment of a collapsing middle class. Alan is a wreck because the world he knew, the world that once valued his contribution, is unraveling. The economic sweet spot that the middle class once represented (careers instead of patchworks of jobs, home ownership, marriage, college bound kids, a financial margin of error) has been whittled away. Manufacturing jobs and other such industries have dried up in the wake of globalization (among other things) leading to unemployment or underemployment. The housing market went absolutely haywire in 2008 stripping people of homes or at least the stability of what owning a home represented. Divorce is about as common as marriage. College prices have skyrocketed, but job prospects after college have flatlined. Most people are in a terminal state of debt. Even America's powerhouse status has shifted. All of this troubles Alan as he sits waiting for the King. It's a lot to be insecure about. It's a lot to whine about. And so he does.

But he doesn't do much else. Except wait, worry and hope for things to get better. And perhaps that's the message. Or perhaps that's the provocation. Is it a resilient stoicism we are suppose to find in Alan or a pathetic resignation? Is this befuddled middle age man suppose to represent us as a culture or serve as a warning of what we could be? Had I cared more about Alan, had he felt more real, I would probably find that question more troubling.
posted by jw