It’s not hard to describe the editorial career of Dave Eggers: he came to prominence in the late 1990s as founder of the literary magazine McSweeney’s, which is still publishing after 15 years and more than 40 issues. The influence of McSweeney’s on contemporary fiction can’t be overestimated. Its early aesthetic of mild experimentation, monochrome typographic clutter and wilful, crypto-absurdist obscurity launched dozens of careers and spawned many imitators. Guest editors undertook wacky, Oulipian conceptual projects. One issue was accompanied by a soundtrack from the indie-pop duo They Might Be Giants; another consisted of a cardboard box full of pamphlets. An always packed reading series in Brooklyn – where the magazine was then based – strengthened the impression that McSweeney’s represented a shift in literary culture. It was a movement as much as a magazine, and it was, above all, fun to be part of (I had stories published in some of its early numbers). Soon Eggers launched McSweeney’s Books, which has matured into a solid independent publisher, and today numerous journals, imprints, websites and charitable organisations live under the McSweeney’s umbrella. In short, Eggers the editor, publisher and philanthropist is everywhere.
It’s more difficult to place Eggers as a writer. However well received his work may be – and reviews have generally been kind – his writing often feels like a side project among many other highly successful side projects. His books fall into the cracks between genres; they’re brought out in different editions by different publishers, or are confusingly revised and retitled after publication. Eggers – by design – avoids the things many other serious writers depend on: a consistent relationship with a commercial publisher, an academic job, permanent residence in New York City. But in part because of his work with young people – his screenplay for, and novelisation of, Spike Jonze’s film of Where the Wild Things Are, and his 826 National organisation, dedicated to teaching underprivileged young people to write – and in part because of his taste for heroic, morally pure protagonists, Eggers’s books have a strong following among twentysomething readers and aspiring writers. My smarter undergraduate students see his characters as avatars of personal integrity and moral strength – making him a sort of liberal alternative to Ayn Rand. It’s a deft and enviable self-placement, but doesn’t make it any easier to characterise him as a writer.
Eggers’s bestselling first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), a memoir about his parents’ deaths and his guardianship of his younger brother, exemplified both the McSweeney’s style and the wryly comic literary aesthetic of his generation. The book’s prose – self-conscious, fragmentary and ironic – served to intensify, rather than distract from, its emotional impact. A novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, was published two years later. Two friends, Will and Hand, compelled by grief after a friend’s death, attempt to spend a week travelling around the world, giving $32,000 away to random people. Eventually Will develops into a strange and compelling character, an obsessive-compulsive control freak prone to holding extended conversations with people in his head, and making frequent phone calls to a mother who may or may not be real. It’s tempting to read Will as an analogue of his creator – a grieving autodidact puzzled by and suspicious of an unexpected financial windfall.
Since then Eggers’s two major prose works have been nonfiction. What Is the What (2006) is the story of Valentino Achak Deng, a former Sudanese Lost Boy trying to make a life in America. When his apartment is burgled and he is held captive, he recalls the dramatic events of his early life. In the introduction, Deng characterises the book as nonfiction but adds that, as a result of the vicissitudes of memory, ‘we simply had to pronounce’ it a novel. This book was followed by Zeitoun (2009), an account of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as experienced by a couple from New Orleans called Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun; it was a condemnation of George Bush’s War on Terror and of his epic mishandling of the storm relief effort in 2005.
As instruments of enlightenment and weapons of social justice, these books worked: they vividly illustrate the way the poor, dispossessed and dark-skinned tend to suffer the most in times of crisis. But both are problematic. In What Is the What Deng’s fictional avatar, though kind and charming, is unconvincing: Eggers portrays him as an unambiguously Good Person who doesn’t understand why everyone else is so cruel. It isn’t clear why Deng’s name isn’t on the cover of the book, why it isn’t labelled as-told-to; and, if it is a ‘novel’, and it is ‘by’ Dave Eggers, why it doesn’t have a more shapely narrative. Zeitoun is more gripping – certainly one of the best things written about the storm and its aftermath. It presents itself as straight reportage, and is written in the third person, in stripped-down, journalistic language. But, again, many will be bothered by Eggers’s need to portray Zeitoun as unrelentingly virtuous, especially in light of recent developments: Zeitoun was charged last year with repeatedly assaulting – and soliciting the murder of – his wife. Eggers’s detractors, of course, have made hay of Zeitoun’s fall from grace: according to this version, the author’s need to attach himself to exemplary figures blinds him to their flaws. Kathy Zeitoun, however, maintains that the book is accurate, and that Abdulrahman’s personality changed after the events it portrays. This is plausible enough: beaten, imprisoned, wrongfully accused of terrorist acts, Zeitoun emerges from the book a broken man. Eggers left off where one story – the story of Zeitoun’s heroism and victimisation – ended. It’s Zeitoun’s present drama – the story of a man whose personal and political anger has consumed him and destroyed his life – that would provide material for a novel.
Until the publication of A Hologram for the King, it was reasonable to wonder whether Eggers was a novelist any more. His fictional output since You Shall Know Our Velocity consisted of a novel that was actually nonfiction, a hit-and-miss collection of short stories and a derivative work for children. But A Hologram for the King, it turns out, is Eggers’s best book. It’s political but never preachy; it is comic, but without depending on the easy irony or zany serendipity of the earlier books. And its portrayal of 21st-century American middle-class suffering is neither mawkish nor condescending. Alan Clay is a white, middle-aged American business consultant on a sales trip to the Middle East, where, along with three underlings, he hopes to sell a holographic teleconferencing system to the king of Saudi Arabia. The sale is supposed to take place in the King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), a massive planned community being built on the Red Sea. KAEC turns out to be a ghost town, the meeting fails to happen at the appointed time and the team is asked to wait indefinitely until the king shows up. And so Alan is subjected to weeks of free-form existence in Jeddah, as he contemplates the failure of his career, his inability to pay his daughter’s college fees, his ex-wife’s cruelty, his father’s cruelty, his neighbour’s gruesome suicide, and the strange lump growing on the back of his neck.
The formula may be over familiar – ageing white guy takes stock of his life, and of the American Moment, during an unexpected caesura – but it works. Eggers’s nonfiction work has taught him to get out of the way of his subject: instead of the somewhat florid, metaphorical language of his first novel, we get emotion conveyed through syntax, timing, the pattern of Alan’s thoughts. Drunk on siddiqi, Saudi moonshine, Alan fixates, convincingly and comically, on the word ‘grandeur’, its repetition like a koan. His abortive attempts to write to his daughter are more informative than any description of emotion could be. And the infrequent similes always sound like his, not the author’s, as when a girl in his memory ‘held her head out in front, low, like a hat hung on a hook’.
There are little mysteries. Is the Danish consultant trying, implausibly, to seduce Alan? Is someone really trying to kill his driver-cum-friend, Yousef? How did his marriage and his career unravel? Is the lump a benign cyst or a deadly tumour? As boredom sets in, Alan becomes paranoid, then reckless, and the story ventures into weirder and weirder pockets of happenstance. There is a surreal tour through a mostly abandoned apartment building, a wild party, an unlikely mansion on a mountaintop, a wolf hunt. The themes are big – decline of American economic power, the shifting politics of the Arab world, the transition in global economic culture from the handmade and tangible to the mass-produced and virtual – but they are mirrored in Alan’s personal dramas. The inscrutability of Saudi culture, for Alan, reflects his difficulties communicating with his father and his ex-wife; the team’s interminable wait in KAEC serves as a backdrop for his sexual impotence and uncertain medical condition. At times, these parallels seem forced rather than apt, and in its final pages this otherwise tightly structured book is marred by the presence of too many plotlines that obviously represent some of his big themes (mortality, failure and so on), even if Eggers does deliver a satisfying, cleverly oblique ending.
Alan is a flawed man, injudicious and self-absorbed, but we identify with him because of the book’s non-judgmental good will. Early in his career, Eggers’s sense of humour was cooler, more detached, and, at times, a barrier to empathy. Here, perhaps under the influence of Deng’s hopeful worldview, or the experience of writing for children, Eggers is more warmly funny. A Hologram for the King is a serious book, but it is less conceptual, more human, more psychological than any of Eggers’s other fiction. It feels like something a novelist would write.