From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]borderstan.com.
By now, the story has taken on the air of legend: On Feb. 14, 1989, a day when most of the Western world was professing its Hallmark love for one another, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a religious decree calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie on the charges of blasphemy against Islam in his novel, The Satanic Verses.
Of course, any cursory glance at the social pages and you’re likely to find mention (or pictures) of Rushdie at various parties and premieres, so we know that this story ultimately ends well. But what exactly happened during that decade-long period of hiding from fanatical assassins and living under the (surprisingly oppressive) shadow of government protection?
Finally, we have the story in Rushdie’s own words. Well, sort of. His long-awaited memoir, Joseph Anton (titled after the code name Rushdie lived under during the fatwa years) is actually told in the third person, so that Rushdie himself becomes a character enmeshed in a tale of political intrigue and espionage, back-room deliberations and secret meetings, and assassinations both thwarted and unfortunately successful.
This decision to avoid the first-person is an interesting one. It helps dodge the pitfall of self-importance that plagues (but is an essential part of) so many memoirs. Unfortunately, it raises the stakes on having to make the “character” of Salman Rushdie more engaging and believable. It’s a curious disconnect between what we expect of memoirs and what we expect of narrative fiction.
But to be asked to follow “Salman Rushdie” instead of Salman Rushdie for 600-plus pages is a bit of a chore–even when he takes care to reveal his own flaws and even given the importance of what’s at stake here (freedom of expression, the battle against religious extremism, the important role of literature in society).
Rushdie has been known to write massive epics (Midnight’s Children, The Moor’s Last Sigh, The Ground Beneath Her Feet), but those works have always carried themselves on a whirlwind of storytelling magic and linguistic acrobatics. All too often, though, Joseph Anton feels like nothing more than a laundry list of events; a police procedural in the worst sense. “First, this happened to me. Then, this happened to me. Then this. And this.” We get the skeleton of a complex story, but none of the organs, muscles and tissues to transform it into a living, breathing tale.
And then there’s the epic laundry list of famous faces Rushdie meets during his years drumming up support for his cause and, eventually, reclaiming his life: Susan Sontag, Bono, Warren Beatty, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Steve Martin, Madonna. These and other names drop into Joseph Anton with all the subtlety of a depth charge, forming a veritable who’s who of late 20th century pop culture.
To be fair, there are some moments in the tedium worth savoring: Rushdie’s early life and birth as a writer; the insights into how he prepared for and wrote his early masterpieces (including the controversial novel that destroyed his everyday life); the call to arms from writers from around the world to stand up for free speech; that final moment when Rushdie steps back into the real world as himself and hails a cab without the suffocating presence of armed security forces.
But as a lifelong fan of Salman Rushdie and a firm believer in the magic of his storytelling powers, I found Joseph Anton to be a disappointment. As a record of events from this period in Rushdie’s life (which he considers the first stirring of the larger geopolitical war between Islam and the West that truly announced its presence on 9/11), the memoir does an adequate job. But if you’re looking for an example of what makes Rushdie so brilliant in the first place, you’re better served going back to his earlier works.
That’s what I’m doing. And I’m rediscovering just how great a writer he can be–and just how lucky we all are that he’s still around to tell stories.
Borderstan welcomes a new contributor, Zak M. Salih. He will be reviewing books for Borderstan. Have leads on new books readers should pick up? Know any nifty reading spots in the neighborhood? Email him at zak[AT]borderstan.com.
One hundred years from now, when scholars comb the (no doubt digital) stacks building a literary canon of the Great Global Recession of 2008, they’ll undoubtedly come across Dave Eggers’ new novel, A Hologram for the King. Their biggest concern won’t be style so much as substance.
Does this 300-plus page novel accurately capture the pathos of what it was like to live during such a moment in history? Does it accurately capture the desperation of the employed and unemployed masses?
From a reader in 2012 to his more enlightened successors a century later, the answer is most certainly yes. Writing in a more stripped down style than ever before, Eggers has crafted a novel that’s both intensely readable and possessed with a palpable melancholy about days long gone. It’s a sadness worsened by the fact that a better future, with better times, may never arrive.
Which is no surprise considering the novel takes as its epigraph a passage from Samuel Beckett’s classic play of existential doom, “Waiting for Godot.” In fact, substitute Godot with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and you’ve got a pretty solid idea of where A Hologram for the King and its protagonist, American salesman Alan Clay, are headed.
At the start, our economic Everyman finds himself wandering through the King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC, pronounced “cake” as a friendly taxi driver informs us) — the Saudi monarch’s massive and massively unfinished urban project. The excess of this city in the desert, which from the ground resembles to Clay a deserted moon base, is a powerful backdrop against which to set our hero’s mission: to present to King Abdullah a holographic conferencing system whose purchase would inevitably rescue Clay from the financial doldrums of bankruptcy and college tuition for his daughter, as well as the failure of finding himself an old-fashioned salesman in a brave new world.
As you probably guessed, the King always pushes back his appointment with Clay and his team. And so Clay is left to fend for himself in a foreign country, where he befriends the locals and later tests their friendship, probes a mysterious growth on the back of his neck (in perhaps a too-obvious metaphor for Clay’s emotional malaise), pines for the love of a beguiling female Saudi doctor, drafts introspective letters to his daughter back in America, drinks bootlegged moonshine in his hotel room, and continues to wait and wait for the King.
As a writer, Eggers is a humanitarian in the literal sense, devoting much of his recent work to explaining and exposing social and political ills. He did it for Darfur and the Sudanese civil war in his 2006 novel, What is the What, and for Hurricane Katrina and the nightmare of post-9/11 bureaucracy in 2009’s Zeitoun. So it’s no surprise that what Eggers excels at the most in his new novel: capturing the way real lives are affected by the global recession.
A former employee of Schwinn, Clay finds himself the victim of the same job outsourcing he once was paid to promote. He’s an idealist; someone who built a career on the tried and true ethics of door-to-door salesmanship. But he’s continually disappointed. And so are we. It’s painful to read about this good old businessman and bicycle aficionado wandering aimlessly like one of the world’s last dinosaurs through a graveyard of bones. As Clay laments at one point, “How could he have predicted the world losing interest in people like him?”
This pain is a testament to how expertly Eggers can craft a character; one on whose shoulders rests all the hopes, concerns and fears of an entire generation for whom hard work and dedication can’t beat back the onslaught of outsourcing, cost-cutting, union-busting and downsizing. As we learn from the traumatic death of one of Clay’s friends, real human lives — not just bank accounts — are at stake.
According to A Hologram for the King, the solution to our troubles lies less in a grand revolution and more in a return to transcendental ways of approaching the world; an economic diet that’s less Karl Marx and more Walt Whitman. The moments in this novel which resonate most are those when Clay seems most at peace: out on the land, working in the dirt, building with bare hands and simple tools.
And even if that’s too trite and soft a moral for you, there’s no denying the fact that A Hologram for the King is an accurate window on our new economic reality — one through which we, and future generations, can see and engage with the cold truths about the way we live and make money now.