As much as I was impressed by the hardback edition of this book, I waited for the paperback version. This is a wonderful story of a man, Alan, 54, who knows the world has passed him by. He realizes that, as Eggers’ epigraph from Beckett reminds us, that “[i]t is not every day that we are needed.” Alan has one chance to catch up with the world, and that chance takes him with several much younger colleagues to Saudi Arabia. Eggers’ insights are sharp and in the service of the story. The book just seems a bit dated, some of the observations a bit too familiar now. Eggers’ prose is minimalist, so the story moves quickly, but it is by no means lightweight. Eggers is after something larger, more important here. This is both about modernity and about a human being; Eggers balances both elements well which is what makes the story work. Alan’s neighbor Charlie becomes so immersed in Thoreau and the Transcendentalists that he deliberately drowns himself in a lake. (That’s not a spoiler; it’s revealed early.) Alan, divorced and with a college-aged daughter, takes another route, though one wonders what that choice will mean to his daughter. As a seat mate points out, “We’ve become a nation of indoor cats” (13). Alan, whose life has furnished him with “a thousand-mile stare” (13) and “[a] circus of worries” (89), including a fear of cancer, is trying to find his way out of that situation. Most immediately, he needs money. Eggers’ comments on the brave new world that Alan struggles to understand are incisive (15-16, 146, 231).
A woman had staged Alan’s house. There are people who do this. They come into your house and make it more appealing than you ever could. They brighten the darkness you have brought into it with your human mess. Then, until it’s sold, you live in a version of your house, a better version. There is more yellow.
The age of machines holding dominion over man had come. This was the downfall of a nation and the triumph of systems designed to thwart all human contact, human reason, personal discretion and decision making. Most people did not want to make decisions. And too many of the people who could make decisions had decided to cede them to machines.
This is the peculiar problem of constant connectivity: any silence of more than a few hours provokes apocalyptic thoughts.
Nothing too staggering (allusion intended) there, but rarely will you see it more eloquently expressed. There’s purpose to Eggers’ writing and that alone makes his work worth reading. And if you don’t know what else he does, check out this site —