I bought and read Dave Eggers A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius because of the title alone. I felt guilty while reading it, because the book felt self-indulgent, as if I were bathing in the coolness of my own generation and I'll admit that I enjoyed the book. In subsequent works by Eggers, I've gone from writing him off (You Shall Know Your Own Velocity, which I enjoyed, but which felt like literary candy) to establishing him as a prominent voice/author of my generation (What is the What and Zeitoun, both great [non-fiction] books IMO).
When I heard he was releasing a new novel, I was quite excited. Could he be one of the great writers of our time? Would this book solidify him as a literary voice much greater than the candy-peddling masses of authors out there?
Once I had the book, I dove right in. I really wanted this book to wow me.
It is very easy to spot the distinctive change in Eggers voice in this book. It is written very simply, very clearly, very straight forwardly. The prose is highly readable and the pages turn quickly.
The novel details a business trip for our lead character Alan Clay to Saudi Arabia where he and his team are pitching hologram technology to the King. Alan is a bit down on his luck, looking for a bright spot to redeem himself after a long, downward slide.
Alan's detached nature in this land so far from his home reminded me of Bill Murray's character in the movie "Lost in Translation". A paranoid, young student who served as his personal driver invigorates Alan the most... the most life we see from Alan is when his young driver takes him into the mountains, to a large house his father has build through hard work and determination, a hideaway in this case from thugs of a man who believes this driver is sleeping with his wife. The threat of trouble, firearms and being the vastly odd-man-out all bring out something in Alan that is as close to alive as we see in the entire novel. But it isn't authentic, it's more Alan trying hard to be something he knows he cannot be, trying hard to be someone in the eyes of people who are suspicious of him to begin with, people who he cannot help but try and win over only to push them further away.
That section was one of my favorites from the book, as Alan thinks back on his life, on building a wall in his hard with his own hands, the satisfaction he felt in doing so, only to have to destroy it for violating zoning laws. He imposes himself on some local villagers building a wall, and while as the reader you want to believe this is going to lead to some sort of breakthrough emotionally, it leads to a sore back, to an attempt at solidarity that falls well short of intention.
There are very few scenes in this novel in which Alan appears comfortable... not in the business meetings, not with his colleagues, not with women nor with friends. And probably the most uncomfortable moments are those Alan spends with himself, drinking home-brewed alcohol and trying to find the right words to say to his daughter on his ex-wife's behalf. And that basically summarizes Alan for me... he isn't spending his energies trying to figure out how to be a better father himself, or a better man himself, in his daughter's eyes or anyone's, even HIS for that matter. He isn't selling a product he is passionate about, doesn't work with people he bonds strongly with, isn't ever really committed to any idea, even as far as the one he is thinking right now.
I do appreciate what Eggers did in trimming the fat from this novel. I appreciate the straight forward voice and the no frills story. This is not, however, a "Hemingway-esque" story, as I have heard some commenters say. There is no bravado, no success, no celebration... no real emotion in this book. I certainly enjoyed the read, but I never really connected with this story. Eggers voice is a good one, being direct is great, but not at the expense of cutting out the emotional core of a novel. Let's hope his next effort improves on that.