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.
“This is who falls through the cracks in society out of war. I wonder how many of us there are who never can open that door, and it’s sad because it defines us. One way or another. Either you open it and deal with it; or it deals with you.”
“I talk about it, I make like its fine, but it’s not okay. I’m not. I feel like two separate people. There are things, not many, but a few, that I keep to myself because I can’t reconcile them with who I am.”
“I was never deployed and only served 16 months in the USAF, training to be a linguist, and I can’t even imagine what you (and others) are going through. I work at a VA now and like to think my small role plays a part in their recovery… but I’m separate from most of our staff and separate from the Veterans. I’ve had too much whisky myself, but I thank you sir for posting this…I know not if your drinking has become a problem, but if it has, I encourage you to touch base with your local VA. If you happen to be in New England, I can give your even more info… even if you’re not in New England, I’d be more than glad to PM you my number and numbers for our support services…God speed, Marine.”
“I never would have guessed that my life would have ended up like this after serving my country. Two tours to Iraq (2003 & 2004) have left me pretty much mentally crippled. I feel so lost like I’m finding my way in the dark. My fiancé, who I am still deeply in love with is leaving me and there’s nothing I can do. I don’t know how to function with others anymore and they don’t know how to deal with me. The crazy thin is that most if the time, I don’t even give a shit. I just keep rolling with the punches and I’m not even fighting back anymore. The thing that kills me is that my brain knows I need I keep from slipping but I feel powerless to do anything about it.”
Veterans Day was last weekend. I am a veteran of the Iraq war. Yet, in my mind, a veteran is a bent man in his late eighties, sporting a cardigan. I do not feel like a veteran. I do not associate myself with veterans. I still wrestle with my role in the United States Marine Corps and in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I remain sitting when veterans are asked to stand and be recognized at church. I delete the United States Marine Corps from my resume. I pretend like I am something other than a veteran. And, if I am honest, I start drinking as soon as it is socially acceptable. I drink either scotch or its affordable little brother, bourbon. I drink until I cry. I sleep. I wake. I stuff it back down and think: while my war experience defines me, it is an unknown to those closest. My wife does not know. My children do not know. My parents, siblings, and friends do not know. I know. Those I served with know. And when we gather, we drink, we cry, and we wake to forget each other until the need once again arises. This last Veterans Day I came no closer to truth. Yet, I was reminded: there is a cost that outpaces Washington budgets. I am neither hero, nor warrior—I am only struggling to understand the war that made me. So, for now, the scotch lingers on the shelf, silent until Memorial Day.
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?