Trees Make Sad Faces
The door creaked as my daughter’s head poked around the corner. “Daddy,” she said. It was five-forty five in the morning. I bookmarked the page I was reading.
“Good morning,” I said as she jumped into my lap.
“Four things,” she started, “one, we will go to Lydia’s house; two, we will read all the books in the world; free, we will go back to Lydia’s house; and sixteen,” her voice fell to a whisper, “we will go see your favorite movie: Curious George.”
“Today?” I asked.
She nodded. “Oh, and nineteen, we will eat hot chocolate.”
“Sounds like a good day.”
Looking over my shoulder and out the window, she changed the subject: “Do you see that pretty pink color in the big-blue sky?”
I turned. “The sun is waking,” I said, “rising over the edge of the world.”
“Beautiful,” she said. “I like pink. But what about all of the trees making sad faces?”
“Look,” she pointed. Bare and leafless trees were creeping over the edges of the window, obscuring the sunrise’s pretty-pink colors.
I kissed her on the forehead. “I guess they do,” I said.
“I have to go potty.”
We stood. I held her hand as I directed her to the bathroom. She hopped on the seat and smiled. “Daddy,” she said, “you have to leave. I need my pregnancy.”
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers
What makes a book? What makes a writer? I asked myself, as I finished Dave Eggers’s new novel, A Hologram for the King. While Eggers is neither eloquent nor poetic, he is certainly prosaic and engaging. Reading Eggers’s first few words, I surfaced what felt moments later to find that an hour had passed—I was on page sixty. It was Eggers’s drum-beating clarity, character development, and world building that had me reaching for the corner of each crisp, white page while hiding a beaming reading light from my sleeping wife.
A Hologram for the King takes place in Saudi Arabia and centers on an aging IT consultant, Alan, who is waiting to close a deal that would bring holographic technology to the Kingdom. Alan is a good man, though lonely, and one who, ultimately, finds life transpiring beyond his control. His wife has left, his daughter is distant, and Schwinn—where he perfected salesmanship—has moved to China. He his overweight, out of shape, and has a worrying growth on his neck. A relic in a digital world, he feels like a bloodied prize fighter at the end of a thirteen-round fight, aware that he has lost. The looming question, however, is who, exactly, has Alan been fighting all these years? His ex-wife, his father, globalization—himself? The answer for both the reader and Alan is ambiguous. There are no epiphanies, no moments of clarity. Alan departs as we found him—alone and waiting. Though, in the end, there is hope for Alan, it is both subtle and buried under mounds of inaction.
Let me be clear, I like Alan—a lot. And, to be honest, this is where Eggers shines. He writes with clarity about a man who is living in transition—as the world is living in transition—from industrial to post, from iron to IT. Eggers is clear, straight forward, and unceasing in his prose. Alan is known; Alan is clear. He sold bicycles; he now sales Information Technology, holograms—illusions. And as Alan struggles to understand his new and fragile reality, he broke my heart. Why? Because I wanted him to succeed, to finalize his contract with the King. I wanted him to connect with his daughter, to find meaning. I wanted him to change. I wanted him to accomplish something—anything. But like so much in Alan’s life, he is unable to accomplish, to act. At one point, Alan is in the countryside with a friend and finds himself, along with his friend’s village, on a wolf-hunting expedition. He so desperately wants to play the hunter and to kill the wolf, to test himself, to fill his unfulfilled life. And when he sees the wolf, he pulls the trigger. He misses, thankfully, because moments later he realizes that it was not the wolf, but a shaggy-haired boy. Yet, even in that, his life is stagnant. There is neither triumph nor tragedy for Alan, only life moving past, acting upon him—impotent.
Eggers writes with Hemingway’s clarity. He nears Dostoyevsky’s ability to plunge into the life of a human. Yet, his brilliance is best displayed in his world development. Through Eggers’s depiction of Saudi Arabia, we see both the beauty and the underbelly. Eggers portrays a world oppressed by Big Brother, a world where everyone knows that someone is watching. So they drink their alcohol out back, behind the outhouse, and in a small garage where the lights are turned down and the blinds are closed. All know; all participate. It is a world so far from the western ideal that it appears both fantastical and clandestine, which makes reading A Hologram for the King the literary equivalent of watching a Wes Anderson film. It borders on the Tenenbaums.
In the end, a strange but believable world is created, characters are developed, and clarity is radiant, but resolution is ethereal. The groundwork is laid for Alan to actualize a better future, but will he? Eggers leaves this for the reader to decide.
So, with the beginning, I end: What makes a book? What makes a writer? Development or resolution? Eloquence or clarity? Or maybe there’s something else, something more, something on which we can’t quite place our finger—something for which false dichotomies fail.
I am wrapping up the third round of edits on my book. It should be done and fully submitted within the week. I am wrestling with my preface, however, and I need your help. The dictionary defines preface as: “a preliminary statement in a book by the book’s author or editor, setting forth its purpose and scope, expressing acknowledgment of assistance from others, etc.”
Here is my working preface:
“I am a veteran of the Iraq war. I am haunted by a question: Was I justified in what I did? I am also a practicing member of a faith community and of a body politic. A reality that leads me to a further question: Were we justified in what we did?
I killed; we killed.
How then shall we live?
My only agenda is to find the truth, for myself, and for us all.”
Any thoughts from the blogosphere?
Violence is. And we all seek answers. Elizabeth Drescher has written an engaging piece on religious violence.
She ends by saying:
“I can’t speak for other world religions. But, as a Christian and as an American, I can insist that it is time for Christians to begin living actively within this tradition of nonviolent peacemaking again. It is time for Christian churches—all of them—to start speaking and acting out of a zeal for justice and peace more than out of a desire for personal comfort as though that counted for spiritual meaning. It is time, that is, for Christian churches to atone for their own role in the culture of violence within which we all suffer by standing actively against it week upon week upon week in the pulpit and on the street.”
I find Drescher’s article well founded and timely. In the wake of a difficult week for Americans abroad, she both asks and answers difficult questions.
While I am slowly working through revisions for my forthcoming book, Peacemaking: A Story of Redemption, I ask the same question that Drescher begins with: Why is it so hard for Christians to understand the logic of nonviolence in their own traditions?
Crawling Towards the Finish Line
Ten weeks and one-hundred thousand words later, I’ve finished my book. Oddly, it was an anticlimactic experience. I penned the final words, texted my wife: Done, and napped on the couch, which was followed by a lonely night of reading and sipping on fermented beverages. It was exactly what I needed. The process was fulfilling but hard, crammed with sweat, elbow grease, and scotch.
What’s next? I’m relaxing this week. Well, not entirely—I still have my day job. When my editor returns from vacation on the fifteenth, we’ll start the difficult process of editing and revising. The manuscript is due to the publisher by September first (here’s to late night cramming!), so we still have a long and unpaved road to ascend.
I’m aware that my rabid fan base is eagerly awaiting a book review. I apologize that I forced all six of you to wait. I probably won’t write any full reviews of my summer readings, but I will share with you what I’ve read and why. As a side note, it’s true: reading cultivates writing, which, in turn, facilitates reading. It’s a circle, a brilliant and clear circle.
I started the summer with Robin Hobb‘s Tawny Man Trilogy, which includes: “Fool’s Errand,” “Golden Fool,” and “Fool’s Fate.” I won’t lie. I’m a geek and I like fantasy. Hobb’s style has a way of drawing me in before ever-so-subtly slapping my brain. Her characters are both real and complex, in a way that compels you to rethink your own relationships.
I, actually, have a theory about Hobb’s style. She writes from the first-person perspective, which, I believe, has the power to seduce a reader like no other perspective. In third person—what I assume is the most common—there’s a brick wall between reader and narrative. I am aware that I’m standing outside and peeping through the story’s one smudgy window, watching events unravel. But in first person, I’m handed the keys that unlock another’s mind. It’s a big responsibility, but one that Hobb deftly handles. As the narrative unfolds, I am a participant. When I read Hobb, I’m rewarded with the experience of crawling inside the mind of another human being. And, when you’re writing a book, it’s pleasant to escape into the mind of someone else and forget—if only for a time. Hobb is a good writer and a better storyteller.
Next, I tore through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s classic, Historia Regum Britanniae or “History of the Kings of Britain.” Written in the twelfth century, I found a clear, concise, and engaging history. So what if it’s not true. It was awesome, like, from Troy-to-King-Arthur and the founding-of-Britain awesome. If you’ve read The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid; Dante, Chaucer, and Milton; and dabbled in Teutonic Mythologies only to ask yourself: “What next?” Monmouth, that’s what. Read it.
I also read “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand. There’s a reason it’s a classic. Her ability as a writer is staggering; her conclusions, to me, were a bit nutty. But, hey, it’ll make you think. Oh, and if you’re wondering, the recent movie “Atlas Shrugged: Part I” stunk. It was weird and felt like watching illegally funded propaganda.
Lastly, I read Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” and “The Magician King.” These are fun, one-sitting reads. Unlike Ayn Rand, they will not make you think—not in the philosophical-academic sense—rather they will whisk you away to a gritty and all-too-often real, though phantasmagorical, New York. I recommend these for anyone on vacation who doesn’t mind heaps of expletives—hysterical, hysterical, expletives.
For now, my lovelies, that’s all.