All That Is by James Salter

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All That IsAmbitious in its scope, All That Is tells the story of Philip Bowman from his youth to middle age taking in a few key moments of the twentieth century along the way. Using an impressionistic approach, Salter takes us on a tour of privileged post-war white East Coast America.

This is done by showing us formative moments in his protagonist’s life, as well sketching out a brief back story for pretty much every character we encounter in the story. No mean feat in a story which comes in at under four hundred pages. This is a condensed, vacuum packed novel.

A brief detour to Virginia thrown in for good measure, mainly so we can gawp at the awful moneyed hicks who, according to Salter, live there. Why their East Coast equivalents are any better is never really detailed. Perhaps it’s because they work in publishing.

The novel opens off the coast of Japan around Okinawa aboard an American battle ship. Here we are introduced to Bowman as he partakes in the final stages of Japan’s defeat at the hands of the Americans. We then follow his post-war life as he pursues a career in publishing and, after an unsuccessful marriage, endless affairs.

It is here that the rot, or should I say Roth, sets in. In common with Roth, Salter seems to be of the opinion that watching privileged white men, who work in or around publishing and who, like Ron Burgundy, have “many leather-bound books”, and an apartment which “smells of rich mahogany”, follow their boners is an inherently fascinating activity.

That’s not to say that a certain amusement can’t be derived from such scenarios, but a full novel? To compound the matter, Salter seems unaware of the absurdity of such characters. Because of this, he misses the comic possibilities inherent in these ridiculous vain creatures who accord their sterile, empty orgasms a cultural significance.

This kind of po-faced faux macho American writing just doesn’t do it for me. One almost gets the feeling that the authors are emasculated by their profession and feel the need to compensate for this.

The female characters function as little more than neurotic receptacles for these literary studs. They range from mouthy alcoholics to good time girls with daddy issues. Some of the descriptions of the these characters makes one embarrassed for the author. Take the following sentence for example: “She was lively and wanted to talk, like a wind-up doll, a little doll that also did sex.” Also every female character in the novel is secretly in love with James Salt… ahem, I mean Philip Bowman.

Salter’s descriptions of Europe are equally embarrassing, particularly the passages set in Spain, which have the intoxicated starry-eyed quality of a teenage backpackers prose. Everything is exotic, intense and “authentic”. Inevitably Lorca is mentioned, and Spanish Gypsies play guitar and sing laments. Oh dear. Not that I have anything against Lorca or Spanish Gypsies but the obviousness chafes.

The ghost of Hemingway also hovers around these passages and Salter suffers from the comparison. One could excuse such juvenile depictions of Europe were they merely the characters point of view but I could find no evidence in the text which suggests this to be the case.

All That Is seems to be a swan song for the 87-year-old Salters presumably lost virility. It is an infuriating read because one clearly see’s that Salter can write. Certain passages shine with clarity and precision, alas they get lost among the tedious machismo. All That Is, unfortunately isn’t all that.

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A Hologram For The King by Dave Eggers

ISBN# 978-1-936365-74-6holo

A Hologram For The King is the title of literary superstar Dave Eggers’ latest novel. The book comes in a rather handsome hardback edition and is published by Mc Sweenys, the company founded by Eggers. The novel features more pared back prose than Eggers’ other forays, telling an allegorical tale of America’s economic decline.

The protagonist Alan Clay is a burned out businessman. As a salesman of the old school Alan is something of a relic in post-industrial America. Having contributed to his own obsolescence through participating in the outsourcing of labour to Asia, Alan is on his way to Saudi Arabia in the hopes of securing a lucrative communications contract which will restore his finances and allow him to afford his daughter’s college fees.

The communications contract entails providing communication infrastructure and tech for the King Abdullah Economic City or KAEC, an ambitious project sanctioned by the king which involves raising a futuristic city in the desert. Securing the contract entails setting up an exhibition featuring a cutting edge holographic presentation, and hopefully impressing the King.

Being an old school businessman Alan also has a belief that his vague acquaintance with a relative of the King will help his pitch. On arriving in Saudi, Alan and his three young assistants find the KAEC to be something of a white elephant. Due to its unfinished nature they are forced to set up their stall in an unconditioned tent without an internet connection, which is most inconvenient when trying to stage a display of cutting edge tech. Further to this no definite date has been given for the king’s visit leaving Alan and his staff in a sort of limbo.

As the novel progresses Alan discovers a worrying lump on the back of his neck, recounts episodes from his life, stumbles around Saudi Arabia aimlessly, encounters locals and expats, and writes a sequence of letters which he will not send to his daughter. While all of this may not sound like a thrilling read it is well executed and seriously engages with some of the economic issues of our day. Of particular note are his observations on America’s collective loss of ambition as its global power and influence declines.

Eggers uses the abandonment of the NASA project and the absence of any recent ambitiously monstrous architecture as emblems of this decline. An American architect who specialises in such buildings encountered by Alan explains that he no longer has projects in the U.S, he has been working for the last ten years in Dubai, Singapore, Abu Dhabi and China, where “the dreaming’s being done”.

The novel’s sparse prose contrasts sharply with Eggers earlier hyperactive style drawing inevitable comparisons with Hemingway. This is not the only stylistic departure taken by Eggers, the story is told from a first person perspective unlike in his preceding novels. Both of these new approaches work well for the author and overall I found A Hologram For The King to be worth reading. My only problem with the novel lied in its tone. While I do not doubt Eggers sincerity, at times I felt I was being lectured by an overly earnest American undergrad backpacker. The novel is largely devoid of humour and its allegorical aspects can be a little overcooked.

The recurring problem with much of Eggers work is the authors overwhelming desire to be perceived as a nice socially responsible guy. Don’t get me wrong, Eggers seems genuinely nice and the various projects he supports are no doubt worthy, but his niceness sometimes gets in the way of his writing. It feels as if he is embarrassed by what he perceives to be the decadence of being a writer and writes about ‘worthy’ topics to mitigate this. He would do well to remember that great literature can be, and more often than not has been, written by terrible people.