Read both of these during the summer and wrote about them then. I held off on posting them because I was going to pair them with other books I had in mind to read. Originally I wanted to post Eggers’s book with new works by Jonathan Franzen and Colum McCann, but I never got around to buying them; similarly, I have a book on the shelf similar in nature to Murakami’s Underground, and thought the pairing might work nicely rather than a random smattering of lit. But instead I’ve just been picking up books that strike my interest, holding off on buying anything new (because moving all these books back to the States will be a real pain in the ass as it is) and rummaging through what we already have. There are plenty of other books I’ve read, and recently I’ve been jotting down notes about them.
I’m not really sure either of these pieces is completed, but it’s been months since I’ve finished them and am not about to skim through to make sure all my ducks are in order. From what I recall, the info is pretty accurate, and my feelings haven’t really changed. I liked Underground but thought A Hologram For the King was a bit of a bore. But it was a quick and easy enough read that one day I might revisit and be pleasantly surprised.
Dave Eggers: A Hologram for the King (McSweeney’s, 2012, 312 pgs.): Literary wunderkind who came to the national spotlight for his debut memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and has founded his own publishing house and series of afterschool writing workshops for kids. I never read that first book and instead started with his collection of short stories How We Are Hungry, moved on to first novel You Shall Know Our Velocity!, and lastly mulled over How the Water Feels to the Fishes, a slim collection of flash fiction in a box set with Deb Olin Unferth and Sarah Manguso, collectively titled 147 Stories in a Very Small Box. I was, to say the least, amused with Eggers’s playfulness and earnestness, but as time has worn on some of that older material now requires my whimsy tolerance to be quite high. Although Zeitoun and What is the What are sitting on my shelf, I’ve never bothered to crack them open, and the more I encounter this wide-eyed wonderer the less inclined I feel to do so regardless of the critical glitz surrounding him.
A Hologram for the King follows Alan Clay, a washed-up executive of sorts who finds himself in debt so crippling he fears he won’t be able to pay for his daughter to attend university any longer. A victim of his own outsourcing, the fictional Clay is held largely responsible for the very real decline of the Schwinn bicycle company, attempting to move production to Mississippi after a busted meeting in Sao Paulo while still staying competitive with firms who have outsourced all labor to China. Alan is granted one last chance: he is the head of an IT team for Reliant, the largest IT company in the world, pitching telecommunications software so advanced it renders a realistic, real-time hologram of the receiver in the room. And the receiver of the pitch? Why, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, of course.
The novel is one long slough through Alan’s woes: the menacing growth on the back of his neck, the disintegration of the relationship between his daughter and ex-wife, the remembrance of the neighbor who froze to death standing in Alan’s lake, and the insufferably long time he waits with his team for Abdullah to arrive and cast judgment as to whether the company will supply the needs of the impending erection of King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC). And the hologram, of course, is the central metaphor of the story. Everything Alan encounters is a façade, hypocritical and hollow beneath the surface: the King Abdullah Economic City is a project forever in the making, what is to be the apex of his legacy, a bustling economic hub that, when Alan arrives, has only three buildings; a nation strictly intolerant of alcohol, drugs, and co-mingling of sexes permits aging expats to dive into pools sporting only their underwear while growing excessively wasted; the realization that his own existence’s meaning has been deflated and emptied. He is a manager of nothing, a self-employed consultant both impotent and intellectually limited, a discarded and useless relic of the globalized capitalist system he in part helped to expedite in his own small way. Alan, too, is a hollow nothing, a man who has confused his existence as being predicated upon his work rather than his family.
But despite, say, Chris Hedges’s glowing review (which functions doubly as yet another damning critique of corporatist capitalism), I’m not sold. Important as the message of the story might be, the language is sparse and static, dead on the page without the slightest hint of life. So Hedges and other like-minded folk can point out the virtues of the message, but the messenger’s voice is weak and his presentation half-baked.
I’ve snooped around enough on the net to find those praising the prose as Hemingway-ish, a slight to Ernest and too big a compliment for the normally quirky Eggers. And it’s astonishing that such a politically and economically relevant novel nestled in the heart of the non-Orientalized Middle East with a main character whose plight is representative of the crisis in America can be emotionally inert line to line, beginning to end. Perhaps that’s the point Eggers wanted to communicate. A flat, holographic landscape populated by ghosts, thin as egg shells and just as interesting.
Still, writers of more skill have tackled this subject matter and done far better in every respect. Few books rise to the level of Don DeLillo’s deconstruction of our voyeuristic, materialistic, paradoxically structured society in White Noise. Compare, for example, the scene where a SIMUVAC employee explains to Jack Gladney that the very real Airborne Toxic Event is being used as a simulation to prepare for future disasters of the same caliber with any scene where Alan Clay deals with the obstinate and/or ignorant Saudis unwilling or unable to give him much information in the way of the King’s whereabouts. The silver lining, however, is Eggers’s ability to render a truly heartbreaking scene towards the end of the book, where Clay find himself so impotent that he cannot have sex with a woman who has made him feel alive for the first time in years, a result of the system he served having sucked all the life force out of him and giving none of it back, a man so humiliatingly dehumanized that he no longer possesses one small thing that identified him as a man.
But I can’t recommend A Hologram for the King to anyone on the fence about the boy wonder. Really, he’s not so young anymore and accordingly is tackling more serious subject material, admirable to say the least but currently out of his grasp. I have hope, though, and don’t wish to slander Mr. Eggers or his body of work. Margaret Atwood’s recent review of his new book The Circle, named a notable book by The New York Times, describes a not-too-distant future dystopia of sorts, a carefully constructed critique of the way we live, and Atwood’s own work has swung more towards sci-fi in the past few years. So here’s hoping that the more you write social commentary in fictional form the better you get at it. If A Hologram for the King is a starting point, he’s off to a decent start.
Haruki Murakami: Underground (Vintage, 2002, 309 pgs.): Japanese novelist’s multi-faceted attempt to understand the Tokyo sarin gas attack perpetrated by the Aum Shinrikyo cult that occurred on 20 March 1995, comprised largely of interviews with victims and a few current and former cult members to form an oral history of sorts in the tradition of Studs Turkel’s World War II tome entitled The Good War. The English version is abridged, with nearly half the interviews conducted with victims cut out for reasons not explained. As someone who was completely unfamiliar with the gas attack in the Japanese metro and nearly twenty years removed, the book stands as testimony to Murakami’s skill at assembling a text even when most of the words aren’t his own. The interviews are clear and easy to follow, the timeline of events meticulously laid out, and the larger portrait painted is one both illuminating and chilling: so many voices recalling the sickly smell of sarin, people collapsing on train platforms, the feeling of a veil being put over one’s eyes as the gas took its effect. In one interview, Murakami recounts being at the hospital bedside of one woman who, at the time of print, had yet to recover most of her motor functions, unable to carry out a conversation and instead only able to respond to simple inquiries.
Some of the more striking similarities that run through the narratives raise larger questions about Japanese society (or maybe big city life, or the nature of all human beings). Even with the proximity of the disastrous Kobe earthquake, so many witnesses saw bodies laid out on the platform and continued walking as though nothing was to be seen; in the event of frantic attendants shouting ‘poison gas!’ the majority kept their quiet gait. The reluctance to help or bother to check the situation speaks loads about how hardened and indifferent a highly materialistic and individualistic society can become. That’s not to denigrate or forget the multitude of people who did help and in some cases suffered physically because of it, but too many couldn’t have been bothered and rushed to forget the incident once the hype subsided.
I’m not sure what Murakami attempted to uncover or thinks he revealed about the Japanese psyche, or what he thought outsiders might think about the Japanese mentality upon reading the blistering accounts collected here. There was a strange determination several victims had to continue to go to work despite their worsening symptoms, and a desire to return to work as quickly as possible regardless of how badly the gas damaged their bodies, and this coming from several people who admitted they disliked their jobs. There is a split between those who feel the culprits ought to suffer the death penalty, no questions asked, while others harbor no ill will towards the criminals, citing the necessity of moving on in light of tragedy. But Murakami makes clear his main concern in an interlude between the testimonies of victims and perpetrators: the disturbing tendencies within Aum represent the dark mirror image of Japanese society and stand as one of the few outs individuals who find themselves not fitting in with the status quo have as an alternative. Citing Unabomber Ted Kazcynski’s manifesto, he briefly notes that society often labels those seeking autonomy as ‘diseased,’ preferring instead the masses capitulate to the mold set out for them. While reading the accounts of the victims is fascinating and heartbreaking all the same, there is something awfully peculiar about the way the Aum cult members express themselves and generally perceive the world and their place in it.
While research on the subject would clear the matter substantially, here’s a brief analysis of just what Aum is, as there’s no explanation until the late second half of the book. Aum Shinrikyo was a derivative Buddhist group led by Asahara (real name Chizuo Matsumoto) centered on the belief that one must shed the Self in order to be liberated from immature emotions such as anger. According to the testimonies provided, Asahara appears to be the typical cult leader: charismatic, commanding, and gradually deified by those who follow him. Even the more intelligent of the lot were drawn in largely because of Asahara’s appearance as a great and knowledgeable man who finally went off the rails. In the words of one ex-member, “as [Asahara] surrounded himself with yes-men his sense of reality faded and delusions took over.” Murakami pinpoints Aum’s violent turn around 1993 when teachings of Tantra Vajrayana (a certain strand of techniques used to attain Buddhahood) became more common and before the ‘Matsumoto incident’ (a sarin attack predating the Tokyo metro attack) took place. Of the accounts provided, the cult members are split one of two ways: they either believe themselves to be incredibly gifted, talented, and intelligent, with cerebral skills far beyond those of the ordinary man, or they admit to the listless and sad state their life was in, that their everyday Joe Schmoe life finally ate at them for simply not being enough.
But Murakami would cringe if I claimed his aim was to shed light on Aum and have that be his focus. Truthfully, Murakami wanted to talk with the victims and share their stories, feeling the media had completely overlooked the majority of those who had been harmed and instead spent months endlessly discussing the inner workings of the mysterious cult. And this collection gives a voice to those who might have otherwise been voiceless, their stories lost in the annals of media endlessly searching for the next blurb of developing/breaking/exploding news.