From The Archive
Chris Lehmann
No. 21  November 2012

Oh, the Irony!

  

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In the long-ago time of the nineties, tech markets boomed and day traders roamed the far horizon. Neoliberal trade policies flattened the globe; centrist Third Way statesmen rolled up budget surpluses and doled out tax cuts.

The pop-cultural soundtrack to this cheerful abundance was a mood of studied irony. Artists, musicians, and writers dwelled lovingly on the coy telescripts, broad sitcom humor, and emotional guile of their not-too-distant youths, exposing the hollow conceits behind it all with a gentle, telltale whimsy. And the crown prince of that sweet ironic caesura was Dave Eggers.

Eggers was a rarity in the slacker-fied precincts of nineties irony: a savvy self-marketer and an institution builder. At the center of his many enterprises was the brand called Dave Eggers. After launching an arch popcult monthly called Might (the name was its own pointed study in irony, suggesting both the inherent power and precariousness of cultcrit ventures), Eggers published his great reputation-making work. It was, naturally, a memoir, bearing the ironic title A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

The memoir opens with the irony-resistant story of Eggers’s family; both of his parents died of cancer within six weeks of each other, while Dave was still in college. It fell largely to the young man to raise his elementary-school-age brother, Toph; in the great tradition of American literary self-reinvention, the two traumatized brothers headed west—to the San Francisco Bay area, where Dave underwent his own passage into the rites of nineties adulthood with young Toph looking over his shoulder. Other bad things happen in the memoir, but the bulk of the action is devoted to songs of the Eggersian self: measured purely on the basis of page count, a single baroque account of the author’s audition to be on the then-buzzy MTV reality franchise The Real World far outweighs the spare and moving chronicle of his parents’ death. The final scene of the book is a tableau of Dave and Toph playing Frisbee alongside the Pacific Ocean and pondering the limitless expanse of the future. This, in a nutshell, was Eggers’s optimism of the ironic will: when life dealt him unimaginable loss, he hurled a plastic disc into the air.

As the many fond reveries of nineties culture have collapsed, Eggers, like the rest of us, has had to square up to many more unpleasant social facts. His follow-up 2002 novel, bravely titled You Shall Know Our Velocity, was a gloss of sorts on the runaway success of A Heartbreaking Work—this time, the central characters faced down the awful unfairness of life by giving away large sums of money on a weeklong world tour. (This trope of privileged youthful flight later took Eggers into his first foray into screenwriting, Away We Go, to truly dreadful effect.) He went on to found the quite worthy 826 National foundation in San Francisco and several satellite cities to support young writers in poverty. He also launched the twee satirical website known as Timothy McSweeney’s Internet Tendency; a separate McSweeney’s indie-publishing imprint soon followed, as did The Believer, a literary magazine produced by, for, and about young writers. A later novel, What is the What, and his 2009 nonfiction book Zeitoun movingly evoked the experience of exile, displacement, and deprivation: the former work hinged on the fictionalized odyssey of a young Sudanese refugee, and the latter recounted the horrific story of a Syrian immigrant detained by paramilitary forces in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The avatar of the ironic sensibility had, in short, done one of the most unironic things imaginable: he had grown a social conscience.

Now that the McSweeney’s empire has outlasted the plum economic circumstances that attended its birth—the interval in our recent economic past we might call the Irony Bubble—Eggers seems to have embarked on a serial quest for social relevance. This quality always comes across in his writing as carefully observed if not exactly hard-won. For all of Eggers’s honorable intentions, there remains something stubbornly abrasive and discomfiting about his documentary enterprises, rendered as they are in the dry, pat, and self-distancing fictional rhetoric of the McSweeney’s age. It’s a bit like what you’d get if The Grapes of Wrath or Manchild in the Promised Land were to be pared down and illustrated by onetime Eggers collaborator Maurice Sendak.

Indeed, one component of the grim narrative of outraged innocence Eggers had painstakingly assembled in Zeitoun has lately come loose: the hero of the book, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, has been jailed for attacking his ex-wife, Kathy, with a tire iron and attempting to kill her. Naturally, any person like Abdulrahman, who’s been on the receiving end of a shocking miscarriage of justice, is under no obligation to live the balance of his life as a paragon. But the powerful, loving bond that the couple shared during the Katrina crisis was a central theme of Zeitoun, and served in emotional terms to heighten the sense of outrage. Here was a man who had not only traveled the storm-devastated neighborhoods of New Orleans by boat until he was caught up in the brutal xenophobic dragnet of law enforcement; here was also a loving, devoted family man, as is the case with most Muslim immigrants tarred unfairly with stereotypes of anti-American extremism.

Abdulrahman’s immigrant allegiance to American civic life, which Eggers foregrounded in Zeitoun, may prove another collateral casualty of his protagonist’s recent troubles, at least by Kathy’s account. She suggested in an interview with the New Orleans Times-Picayune that his recent violent conduct could be bound up with his embrace of a “radical” religious philosophy, at odds with mainstream Muslim worship. Again, one can well understand how the trauma that Abdulrahman suffered in Katrina’s wake could radicalize anyone, in any number of directions—but the larger point here is that Abdulrahman’s seeming lurch into the Islamic fringe violates the prime directive of an Eggers protagonist, who is never to hold any conviction too firmly, and should never be too rigid in his outlook and observances to prevent the adaptive flourish of whimsy that life always demands of the culturally attuned subject.

Put another way, it’s awfully difficult to imagine Eggers lavishing a book-length narrative on a victim of a Katrina-related travesty of justice who was both a blameless innocent and an adherent of Islamic fundamentalism. And if he had been a domestic violence offender into the bargain, well, then all the didactic irony on offer couldn’t elicit the requisite sympathy from readers.

In his new novel, A Hologram for the King, Eggers seems determined to circle back to some of the themes of his early career, now armed with the sadder, wiser truths he’s encountered in his middle age: fling all the Frisbees you like into the sunset, but a fair amount of failure, frustration, and cosmic indifference is the human lot. And the protagonist bearing this glum message is no longer an exoticized Other from far-off Sudan or Syria, but a suburban American man-on-the-make, very much in the Eggers vintage. One might well note further that the novel’s protagonist, Alan Clay, shares some clear affinities with his creator: a romantic attachment to the Midwest, a pained nostalgia for childhood pastimes, and a resolute flight from a political world that refuses to heed the redemptive message of his wonder. Only Alan—a fiftysomething corporate consultant on the steep downward side of his career trajectory—is an older, more hapless, and more battered ambassador of the American spirit than members of the Eggers generation are used to encountering.

That is only fitting; America and its productive economy have weathered a punishing round of reversals since the nineties heyday of the high ironic mood—a theme that Eggers plumbs early and often in the novel. As Alan endures a marathon flight to Saudi Arabia, he falls into conversation with a seatmate, a retiring businessman who drunkenly pronounces that the productive chapter of economic life in the United States is over—“without a doubt it was, and now we had to be ready to join western Europe in an era of tourism and shopkeeping.” America has devolved into “a nation of indoor cats,” the button-down Savanorala pronounces, while the real manufacturing and enterprise has taken root in the former Third World: “People were done manufacturing on American soil. . . . Jack Welch said manufacturing should be on a perpetual barge, circling the globe for the cheapest conditions possible, and it seemed the world had taken him at his word. The man on the plane wailed in protest: It should matter where something was made!”

Alan is sympathetic to the man’s complaint: he, too, is a chastened survivor of the making-things age, a onetime salesman and plant manager for Schwinn—what could be more purely American and forward-looking than a senior perch at a brand-name suburban bicycle assembly? But Alan is in crisis—now working as an erratically employed sales consultant, he has his overvalued house in suburban Boston on the market, an ex-wife targeting his dwindling cash reserves, and his daughter preparing to enroll in a sophomore year in college that he can’t pay for.

And he’s deeply in debt from a misguided effort to revive the Schwinn-style tradition of making durable, well-designed bikes in a boutique manufacturing concern that’s yielded him nothing but a single super-sleek, all-chrome prototype of the ideal velocipede of his fond imagining. So now, in a grand Willy-Loman-style flourish of desperation, he’s gone all in with a tech firm that’s launched a high-stakes bid to win a contract to handle digital services for the King Abdullah Economic City, an ambitious but underfunded Saudi settlement functioning mainly as a monument of royal vanity in the tradition of Dubai. Even though Alan is a relic of the industrial past—he’s more than twenty years senior to the savvy American tech engineers who are handling the real detail here—he landed the managerial gig on the basis of his long-ago friendship with a nephew of the eighty-five-year-old king. The team’s crowning achievement is to be the debut of, yes, a hologram—an augur of the cutting-edge communications that Alan’s client company, Reliant, will be supplying to the model city, itself little more than a digitized projection of building plans and oil money. As Alan discovers, the King Abdullah Economic City is a mirage rising alongside the Red Sea: a clutch of pink condominium developments flanked by a central office building—and lots and lots of unstarted building projects on vacant lots.

With this portentous economic conflict—wireless digital imagery crowding out the old industrial world of solid manufacturing—very much in the foreground, the plot and characterization on display here render Eggers’s novel something of a rickety industrial contraption of its own. There are abstractly summoned simplifications of recent economic history, rendered in the trademark twee McSweeney’s style. (“His decisions had been short sighted,” goes the arch summary of Alan’s wayward recent fortunes. “The decisions of his peers had been short sighted. These decisions had been foolish and expedient.”) There are mock-heroic moments of industrial-age nostalgia, such as when Alan summons forth the geist of his tenure in the Schwinn headquarters in Chicago:

Those were bright days. In the morning he’d be at the West Side factory, watching the bikes, hundreds of them, loaded onto trucks, gleaming in the sun in a dozen ice-cream colors. He’d get in his car, head downstate, and in the afternoon he could be in Mattoon or Rantoul or Alton, checking on a dealership. He’d see a family walk in, Mom and Dad getting their ten-year-old daughter a World Sport, the kid touching the bike like it was some holy thing.

And there are half-hearted critiques of the noncommunal cast of consumer capitalism. Alan’s father, an angry retired foreman at a shoe factory, scorns his son’s courtly digital errand to the Saudi king: “Every day our people are making their websites and holograms, while sitting in chairs made in China, working on computers made in China, driving over bridges made in China. Does this sound sustainable to you, Alan?”

The sum total of these semi-jaundiced reflections in an ironist’s eye is to strategically distance Alan, and the reader, from any sense of responsibility for the many looming reckonings that the global market has in store for us. Alan doesn’t know the first thing about hologram construction, after all—he’s just trying to parlay an old friendship into a lucrative business agreement, just like any character on Mad Men might. And as he ponders the world he has lost, Alan can’t do anything more than meekly gesture at the power of the colorful Schwinns of his heroic commercial past; turning over the memory of how locally produced goods shine more brightly and enduringly in locally constituted consumer markets, he confesses to himself that he “couldn’t say” why such a vision of fused Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft might be superior to the border-decimating, wage-sweated variety that has transformed him into an unlikely courtier of the Saudi king.

Indeed, this broadly panicked flight from the social world and its consequences is why Eggers and his cohort of smart-guy fiction writers—your Jonathan Safran Foers, Ben Kunkels, and Chad Harbachs—share a telltale penchant for rapidly delivered yet tediously involuted abstraction. The trademark narrative strategy of the Ironist Bubble permits character and reader alike to hover safely above the messy dramas of history and social conflict, substituting glib monologues and deadpan asides for more closely hewn and emotionally demanding characterization. Foer, in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, is thus able to translate the horror of 9/11 into a redemptive children’s fable (and yet more offensively, to render the violent death of a World Trade Center worker as fodder for a child’s flipbook). Kunkel takes the restless-young-man materials of a Hermann Hesse–style bildungsroman and renders them (in Indecision) as an extended paean to compulsively self-narrating developmental stagnation—the polar opposite, in other words, of a fictional coming-of-age. And Harbach burnishes the rawer stuff of closeted gay identity into a sepia-toned meditation on baseball and fraternal male innocence in the mid-twentieth-century collegiate Midwest.

Likewise, Alan, the man who stands at the vaguely rendered center of all of Eggers’s broad-brush globalized anomie, is less a fully rounded character than a convergence of half-formed attitudes about the personal costs of industrial decline. (His last name, Clay, seems to evoke both his not fully formed adult character and his chronic urge to return to the loamy preindustrial earth.) Everywhere he faces economic adversity, Alan translates the experience into an unappeasable personal slight. For instance, Alan pinpoints a snafu in the processing of a Banana Republic credit card as a pivotal moment in his own economic downturn, and arrives at this chilling syllogism: “Banana Republic was killing the ability of entrepreneurs like himself to move this country forward. Banana Republic killed his credit, and that had killed America.” The brunt of all such indictments boils down to Alan’s own bathetic bewilderment over his historical obsolescence: “He thought he could make . . . $200k at will, in any given year. How could he have predicted the world losing interest in people like him?”

Of course, if Alan were taking these things to heart, he could pursue a political education—either on the Tea Party right or among the left populists of Occupy Wall Street. (It’s unlikely that he would end up allied with the union movement, however, since for all of his gauzy evocations of the Age of Making Things, Alan is himself a career management lackey.) Yet Alan can’t situate his plight in any account of public life beyond the dimly perceived and peevish logic of the market.

Alan’s depoliticized soul is more than a function of his place in the hierarchy of production, though. He remains imprisoned by his own over-abstracted life narrative, his crippling suburban nostalgia, and his terror of intimacy. He is, in other words, a classic child of the irony age, now improbably fending for himself in a newly brutal stretch of global capitalist history. The one moment when he encounters a clutch of construction workers harbored on a seedy and neglected floor of the city’s show condominium, he recoils in instinctive incomprehension and terror. For all of his resolute sense of victimhood, Alan clearly wouldn’t know a tremor of solidarity, or a shared historical plight, if it were to strike him in the face (as at least one among the nameless wage-earning horde here threatens to do).

Like any good ironist, Alan recognizes that history itself is his gravest enemy—it’s the thing that he can’t outwit in a bar or a conference room, nor deny amid the rampaging night thoughts that keep him awake for days on end in his anonymous Jeddah hotel room. The thought of the past is quite literally intolerable to him: he isolates a defining moment of crisis in his failed marriage that came during a cross-country trip. His wife, Ruby, wanted to talk about her former lovers:

She wanted Alan to know why she’d left them and chosen him, and Alan wanted none of it. Was a clean slate too much to ask for? Please stop, he begged. She continued, glorying in her history. Stop stop stop, he finally roared, and no words were spoken between Salt Lake City and Oregon. Each silent mile gave him more strength and, he imagined, bolstered her respect for him.

Ruby is also intolerably public-minded—another telltale concession to the regime of history: “She was exasperated by the persistence of global crises that seemed to her imminently solvable. She wrote letters to senators, to governors, to people of influence at the IMF. . . . She thought, each time, that she’d written the Magna Carta.”

In contrast to such embarrassing grandiosity, Alan prefers his past to be doled out in small, insular dollops, without any other human on hand to intrude—let alone the dreary stuff of the collective past or present. In the absence of any grand narrative beyond the collapsing structure of his shabby self, Alan retreats into familiar tribal comforts, obsessively reviewing the DVD of the historic Boston Red Sox World Series victory of 2004 and musing on the vanished glories of the Schwinn empire. He has a series of amorous encounters over the course of his vigil for the King, but they come to naught; he’s indeed spent the past eight years in a hermetic state of self-imposed celibacy. He manages at least to bring one partner to manual climax by pondering his effort as another species of productive use value: “We push the buttons that provide the rewards. Again the greatest use of a human was to be useful. Not to consume, not to watch, but to do something for someone else that improved their life, even for a few minutes.”

In back of such self-distancing homilizing is an all-too-palpable fear of commitment and its emotional entanglements that nudges the hapless Alan toward something close to psychopathy. All of Alan’s sexual encounters take place in water—including a flashback to his first courtship of Ruby on board a cruise ship on the Amazon, which resolves into a traumatic encounter with hungry crocodiles. The thudding symbolism of the dreamlike immersion in water—the loss of control, the suspension of ego boundaries, and the background fear of drowning—is brought into unmistakable relief here by another recent memento mori for Alan: one of his Massachusetts neighbors, a nature-worshiping transcendentalist, strides purposefully into a nearby lake on a cold day and stands there motionless for five hours, dying of an apparent bout of hypothermia.

It’s also no less blindingly significant that Alan’s dad, who has retired into a rustic New Hampshire widowhood on a large farm spread, becomes a randy and virile productive man of the Earth in his golden years: he has shunned both the perils of getting by in the postindustrial global economy and the fatal water-feminine principle, leaving his ego boundaries and productive self-esteem gratifyingly intact.

Alan bears a superficial resemblance to many deeply conflicted male strivers in popular literature—most strikingly, perhaps, to Chip, the similarly resource-challenged middle-class washout in Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 novel The Corrections. Only Chip, unlike Alan, remains painfully aware that his scam—a convoluted stock deal plundered from the remains of the former Soviet Union—is neither productively nor ethically defensible. And as a result, when the final reckoning comes for him, Chip, while beholden to many other delusions, is not given much to self-pity. Alan, by contrast, is compulsively driven to eke out any semblance of personal or productive redemption from the stark and unforgiving landscape of the King Abdullah Economic City. When al-Ahmad, one of the King’s advisers, prevails upon Alan to take a new yacht out for its maiden spin on the city’s harbor (water again!), Alan is briefly returned, in reverie at least, to his full stature as a wonder-making man-on-the-make—and also, importantly, a history-less American Adam on hand for the opening act of the great financial city’s founding:

There wasn’t much of anything there now, just an enormous disc of land in the middle of the water, but it was stunning nevertheless. . . . Alan wanted to stay here. He wanted to watch the city grow, and he wanted to be a charter owner. Maybe in Marina Del Sol. What had they wanted for condos there? After this deal, he could afford it. And the deal, now, seemed well in hand. . . . Al-Ahmad liked him, and trusted him enough to allow him to pilot a gleaming white yacht through the pristine canals of the city. Alan was already part of the early history of this place. . . . They were both happy men, men of vision. Alan felt, for the first time since he’d arrived, that he belonged.

In a grimly complementary set piece, Alan finds himself, during one of his many vacant business days awaiting the King’s eternally postponed arrival, musing on the allied misfortunes of a stateside business acquaintance, betrayed even more gruesomely by the wiles of globalized finance capital than Alan was. His friend represented a Pennsylvania glassmaking company called PPG, which had been originally contracted to provide an expensive bank of high-security windows for the post-9/11 Freedom Tower project—and at the last minute, the company’s bid was undercut by a Chinese firm making the same windows under a licensing agreement with the same Pennsylvania company. Sitting in the high-symbolic setting of a sunken Saudi construction pit, Alan marvels at the base conduct of the Port Authority of New York in the whole sick tale:

It was the fact that they would go abroad for such a thing, would knowingly lead PPG on—millions in equipment upgrades and retooling to enable them to build the glass—my God, the whole thing was underhanded and it was cowardly and lacking in all principle. It was dishonor. And at Ground Zero. Alan was pacing, his hands in fists. The dishonor! At Ground Zero! Amid the ashes! The dishonor! Amid the ashes! The dishonor! The dishonor! The dishonor!

Everything about this scene—from the barely contained violent gesture to the curiously Victorian diction of Alan’s rage (even the most rabid foes of globalization don’t depict its ravages as a matter of sullied national honor)—rings false. This outburst, with its obsessive repetition of key phrases and manic pacing, is much more plainly in the emotional register of a spurned lover; for Alan, at this late date, to recognize that the borderless havoc of finance capital corresponds to no recognizable human virtue is a bit like him being scandalized by the news that there is no Santa Claus—or that the 2004 Red Sox World Series victory might have been tainted by the abuse of performance-enhancing drugs.

And not surprisingly, given the irony-straitened logic of Alan’s character, this raw outburst leads to no discernible change in our protagonist’s ineffectual conduct or broadly aggrieved-yet-passive outlook. The shallow catharsis here tapers off just as randomly as it seems to have begun: a Saudi security retinue fetches the fulminating businessman from his hole in the ground, “making big scooping motions, as if conjuring him from the underworld by urging him up, up, up.” Alan knows the moral of the scene all too well: “Their faces said, You are not supposed to be there, fifty feet under the earth, walking like that, pacing, angry, recounting unchangeable events from not just your own past but that of the country as a whole.”

No, he is not, and eventually Alan takes the lesson to heart. He faces much adversity, and some heartbreaking reversals of fortune in the remainder of his Reliant junket, but like any good American Innocent Abroad, he resolves at the book’s climax to make the best of things. When we take leave of him, he settles into the courtly vigils of the King Abdullah Economic City on a more-or-less permanent basis. Unfortunately, we don’t learn whether he was able to wire home to have his cherished chrome-plated Schwinn sent on to his new desert digs—together, perhaps, with a Frisbee or two.

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.

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