Enemies Foreign and Domestic
Dave Eggers and Ben Fountain Have Written Two of the Best Novels of the Year (So Far)
A Hologram for the King
by Dave Eggers
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
by Ben Fountain
The one thing Dave Eggers had not done until now is give us a novel you could safely describe as traditional. But his newest, A Hologram for the King, practically sounds like a John Updike book, or something by any number of literary authors who came of age between 1950 and 1979. It's about the internal life of an ordinary, melancholic middle-class white man named Adam Clay sliding down the back slope of middle age. Clay—even the name is portentous in an old-school symbolic way—struggles with his own impending irrelevance in the face of a new, younger generation of workers and a world that seems to have passed him by.
But of course Eggers brings his own special charms to Hologram. For starters, he sets the book not in the past but in the science-fiction present. Clay works for a company that has created a new technology that allows users to communicate via lifelike holograms. He and a team of disaffected younger employees are stationed in Saudi Arabia to show the new technology to the nation's king. They never know when or even if the king will appear, however, so they commute back and forth between their hotel in Jeddah and a tent in the nascent King Abdullah Economic City to prepare their presentation in case he ever deigns to arrive.
Like Clay, and like the holograms with which he hopes to impress the king, the Economic City is only half there, a cluster of skyscraper shells in the shape of a city. Clay's internal monologue is at least as real as the world around him. He laments the decline of the Schwinn Bicycle Company, where he used to work. The once-great company was humbled and sold off for scrap in the face of cheap labor conditions in countries that can do capitalism better—by which I mean they celebrate a more pure condition of capitalism, without pesky regulations and human rights to get in the way—than the United States. The company's collapse is a metaphor for the America we find ourselves in now.
Longtime McSweeney's fans may find that Hologram doesn't suit their tastes; we look to Eggers to show us the future, and he appears at first blush to be stuck in the past here. But that's short-sighted thinking. What Eggers is doing, with remarkable confidence, is stripping the American novel down to its most basic core—employing the internal voice of someone who has been robbed of their voice, and then amplifying that voice until it speaks for us all as we are right now. That's something that most modern American novelists have forgotten how to do, or never learned, and it's what makes American fiction so valuable and compelling.
Note that I said "most" novelists have forgotten how to do this. That's because a debut novelist named Ben Fountain has done the unthinkable: Earlier this year, he out-Eggersed Eggers with his novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. I was reluctant even to read Walk, because it's about two topics—war and football—that traditionally don't move me to pick up a novel. But so many writers and readers and booksellers I trust assured me that Walk was a book unlike any other, and possibly the best novel to come out this year, that finally I caved.
I'm so glad I did. Walk is the story of a team of young soldiers who committed an act of fabulously media-friendly bravery during the Iraq war. The Bush White House has shipped them around the country as part of a pre-Thanksgiving media blitz culminating in a halftime show with Beyoncé at a Dallas Cowboys game. The book only spans a few hours, and like Hologram, it lives entirely in the mind of the protagonist, a virgin from Texas named Billy Lynn, but the portrait it paints of America is unforgettable. (A word cloud forms on the page like an exploded poem whenever regular Americans swarm the soldiers to try to express their gratitude, filled with mangled words the media has taught them to repeat: "terrRist freedom evil currj support troops nina levin Bush sacrifice values God.")
Sometimes Fountain can't quite restrain himself in Walk. Occasionally the whole thing teeters and threatens to tip—a love interest gets a little too heavy too fast, and some aggression builds up too quickly—but he always pulls himself together just in time. By the end, Lynn's interior narrative builds into a wildly ambitious, tremendously affecting story. Paired, Hologram and Walk are the perfect two books for an America in the flux of an election year: They employ forgotten voices to wrestle with our collective problems, embrace our national hopes, and remind us that there is not now, and has never been, one single worthless American story.