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Irony and Sincerity

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 4, May/June 2013
p. 6 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0062

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If the new sincerity (a.k.a. the metamodern) is a favorite meme of post-postmodern cultural critics, then one-time Generation-Xer Dave Eggers is the cute kitty whose face appears below that caption. Initially famed for his hyper-self-conscious memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), in the past decade, Eggers has turned over a new pixel or two, remaking himself first as a chronicler of the travails of young idealists not unlike himself in You Shall Know Our Velocity (2002) and then as a far more compelling fictionalizer of other people’s traumatic experiences in two documentary narratives appearing under the imprint of his own press, McSweeney’s: What is the What (2006) and Zeitoun (2009). Assembled in large part from oral histories and first-person interviews, these last two books strive for—and largely achieve—a classroom-friendly ease of reading alongside a clear ethical provocation. They challenge readers to live in the skin of recent immigrants from Sudan and Syria, respectively, who have been shabbily treated in the U.S. They turn away from Eggers’s earliest preoccupation with first-person angst to ask what he and we must do for others.

The question provoked by Eggers’s newest and National-Book-Award-nominated novel, A Hologram for the King (2012), then, is whether he still has reason to write in the plain style of his documentaries even though all the evidence suggests this latest novel is entirely invented; it has no implied co-author and mentions little source material beyond a history of the Schwinn bicycle company, after all. Does invention bring Eggers back to self-consciousness and the remains of postmodern irony? Or, has he—as the metamoderns suggest—moved toward a new fusion of irony and sincerity?

The answer is, basically, yes and yes. This New York Times favorite speaks a version of contemporary American English so stripped down that it verges on an over-the-top Hemingway parody. So many brief passages of such clarity and startling directness appear that one might easily (but wrongly) conclude that it tells a simple story. Eggers’s hero, for example, an anxious middle-aged technology salesman, often thinks in bullet points: “She was tall, curvy, with tiny gold earrings. She had ruddy skin and a lilting voice.” The narrator summation of these lists is similarly uncomplicated: “Alan liked her more than many of the people in his life, people he saw every day.” We know Alan’s situation as clearly as he does himself: “Alan was happy for the work. He needed the work.” This taste for brevity ensures that, for a story largely concerned with waiting, the pace is pretty brisk. We skip breezily along from one declarative to the next.

Faced with so much willful flatness in the opening chapter, a reader accustomed to the loopier syntacical constructions of, say, Pynchon might be forgiven for wondering if Eggers has either gone completely ironic and deadpan. This suspicion quickly dissipates, though. Alan Clay’s Beckett-ish stasis, as he hangs around the King Abdullah Economic City hoping for a long-delayed royal audience, soon grows absurd, as do his peculiarly plausible responses to the stress of waiting. Eggers sends his would-be expatriate off to wander the largely uninhabited development zone observing objects and scenes—such as “a two-story metal structure, something between an oil derrick and a weathervane, in the middle of the promenade”—whose meanings remain opaque to him. Through Alan’s uncomprehending eyes, the Saudi environment appears unromantic, hyper-modern, and increasingly strange. This novelty makes a nice counterpoint to the dull home life this divorced father has left behind in the Massachusetts suburbs.

And Alan himself, as it turns out, is also highly conflicted. He obsessively writes confessional letters to his daughter but tears them up without sending them for fear he has too little fatherly counsel to offer. He also drinks plenty of super-strong moonshine in his hotel room and cultivates a trippy deepness—making awed statements such as “You are so white” to his pillow while under the influence. With the bed spinning night after night, Alan manages to recover a sincere love...



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