A review of O, DEMOCRACY! (Kathleen Rooney) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

A review of O, DEMOCRACY! by Kathleen Rooney
by Dr. Joseph Suglia, the Greatest Author in the World

Books are like lovers. Some are easy; others are hard to get.

If books are like lovers, and surely they are, most American novels are like ************. They spread their pages for the firstcomer. They lay their mysteries bare. They are accessible to all. And they, and the experiences they afford, tend to be forgettable.

O, DEMOCRACY! (2014) might be easy to read, but its mysteries are not easily exhausted.

D.H. Lawrence, in FANTASIA OF THE UNCONSCIOUS, writes:

“I count it as a misfortune that serious books are exposed in the public market, like slaves exposed naked for sale. But there we are, since we live in an age of mistaken democracy, we must go through with it.”

O, DEMOCRACY! has received a great deal of media attention because of its autobiographical sources. The book, after all, centers on a twenty-eight-year old intern who works for the Senior Senator of Illinois circa 2008. The authoress, Professor Kathleen Rooney, worked as a U.S. Senate Aide between the years of 2007 and 2010.One should avoid making simple equations between the novel and Professor Rooney’s life, however. Her main character is named Colleen Dugan, not Colleen Mooney. And the Senator is named “the Senator,” not Nick Nurbin, Rick Rurbin, or Mick Murbin.

Colleen discovers a videotape. It is a videotape that could annihilate the Senator’s rival, a Republican Congressman named Ron Reese Ryder who is likely a composite of the many Republican Congressmen who bash gays in the name of Christianity and yet suppurate in Super-8s and fake love in Taco Bell restrooms. Will Colleen choose the mountain road of mortality? Or will she choose the underpass of politics? You will have to read the book to find out.

As I was deciphering this book–which is very funny, by the way, and blissfully free of clichés–I played a game which one might call “Let’s Find the Referents!” “What is the writer alluding to?” I asked myself again and again as I read.

To what is Professor Rooney alluding when she writes of a film that “feature[s] two actors from a late-night sketch comedy program as the hosts of an improbably successful cable access show broadcast from the basement of a suburban home” [17]?

This could only be WAYNE’S WORLD (1992), a film that I have never had the desire to see.

Is the “Rapacious British Oil Company” British Petroleum? It must be.

The “Alabama woman” who refused to “move to the back of the bus” [159] is obviously Rosa Parks.

The “Alaskan hockey mom [who] pays lipsticked lip service to feminism without actually saying the F-word” [243] is certainly Sarah Palin.

Most of the references, as you can tell, are not difficult to figure out, but every now and then there is an obscure reference. Consider, for instance, the “book-length essay” given to Colleen by her husband Walter. It contains this description of Chicago:

“Once you’ve become a part of this particular patch… you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real” [qtd. in 227].

To my ear, the prose cited sounds precisely like the prose of H.L. Mencken. I was dismayed to find out that I was wrong! No, it is not the great Mencken. The passage comes from Nelson Algren. Thank Google for Google.

All of the references–absolutely all of them, as far as I can tell–are exophoric. Exophora is a term that linguists use to describe a reference that points to something outside of a given field of language. It is a bit like trying to solve an equation with a variable: A=X. We know what `A’ is. But what is `X’? The reader’s experiences in the world will shape the answers to these questions.

* * * * *

One of the most enduring writing-teacher clichés is: “Show, don’t tell!”

What, precisely, does this mean?

Narrative is the way in which the storyteller–not the author, but the figure who is telling the story–makes things known. (Narrative is derived from the Latin adjective gnarus, which means “knowing,” and which, in turn, may be traced back to the Greek gnosis, “knowledge.”)

There are two ways of making things known: by showing the reader things and by telling the reader things.

When a narrator shows us things, s/he describes them, illuminates them, makes them visible, audible, etc.

The writings of Alain Robbe-Grillet are perhaps the clearest examples of this tendency.

When a narrator tells us things, s/he informs us what something means.

The writings of Thomas Mann are perhaps the clearest examples of this tendency.

O, DEMOCRACY! shows and tells in equal measure. Professor Rooney writes essayistically, at times. We are notified that Gina Moretti, press secretary, is “terrifying and a miser with praise” [31]. We are informed that Colleen “feels f***ing horrible” [136] after she discovers the videotape. Anti-abortion protesters are “[v]ituperative” and “sanctimonious” [140]. And so forth and so on.

And yet, and yet. There is vivid description, as well. As Colleen walks through the Federal Plaza, the “red-orange stabile of a giant flamingo reveals itself to her right” [43]. For those of you unfamiliar with Chicago, that is a fifty-ton steel sculpture sculpted by Alexander Calder. Pure description without metaphor or simile. Anti-abortionist protesters storm the thirty-eighth floor of the Kluczynski Federal Building at 230 South Dearborn Street. One of them has a poster with this image: “The smeared roadkill mess of the twig-limbed fetus on an anonymous white sheet” [138]. Good use of metaphors. One of my favorite characters, and one of Colleen’s least favorite characters, is a vapid-but-fun former cheerleader named Jennifer Whitlock or “J-Lock.” Here is how she is described: “She has a baked-on tan and breasts that sit on her chest like snowglobes” [145]. Good use of a simile, there. Here is another simile well-used: “[The Senator’s] fleshy cheeks frame his face like plump steaks.” That is a simile equal to the BEST of John Cheever. And these are the sentences I prize the most: “As it is, the air is dead and still. It feels emulsified, almost colloidal–the individual water particles floating suspended” [211].

Now, those are sentences worthy of Suglia, which is the highest praise that I could accord to another living author. And not only are these sentences wonderful. The entire book is crackling with wonderful sentences.
Kathleen Rooney, poetess and essayist, offers us the perfect synthesis of illumination and information.

Dr. Joseph Suglia, the Greatest Author in the World

A review of MIN KAMP: Volume One (Karl Ove Knausgaard) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

A review of MIN KAMP: Volume One by Karl Ove Knausgaard

by Dr. Joseph Suglia, the Greatest Author in the World


“If you are unhappy, you must not tell the reader.  Keep it to yourself.”

–Isidore Ducasse

“Why is everyone so literal these days?  I was speaking metaphorically.”

–MAHLER (1974)

“Every mind needs a mask.”

–Maurice Blanchot


MIN KAMP (2009-2011) is the 3,600-page autobiography of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard.  Though the title has Hitlerian resonances, it ought to be stated that the first volume has no perceptible anti-Judaic content.  There is no evidence that Knausgaard is a fascist purifier or ethnic homogenizer.  One could say, charitably, that by calling his book MIN KAMP (the exact same title of Hitler’s memoir in Norwegian translation), Knausgaard has dehitlerized the title.

Knausgaard told the BBC, “I tried to write a novel for four or five years.  I wrote every day.  This is what I do, you know?  It’s kind of hard to fail every day.  But I was looking for something, and at the end, I was so frustrated, I told myself, I just write it as it was, you know, no tricks, no nothing.”

Knausgaard has indeed written a book that is almost completely devoid of irony, of figure, of metaphor, of simile, of literary language.  MIN KAMP is a transparent book.  In it, the author seems to disclose himself as he is.  He seems to present his life immediately.

On page 18 of the English translation, the author describes an early experience with sardines:

“This evening, the plates with the four prepared slices awaited us as we entered the kitchen.  One with brown goat’s cheese, one with ordinary cheese, one with sardines in tomato sauce, one with clove cheese.  I didn’t like sardines and ate that slice first.  I couldn’t stand fish; boiled cod, which we had at least once a week, made me feel nauseous [sic], as did the steam from the pan in which it was cooked, its taste and consistency.  I felt the same about boiled pollock, boiled coley, boiled haddock, boiled flounder, boiled mackerel, and boiled rose fish.  With sardines it wasn’t the taste that was the worst part — I could swallow the tomato sauce by imagining that it was ketchup — it was the consistency, and above all the small, slippery tails.  They were disgusting.  To minimize contact with them I generally bit them off, put them to the side of my plate, nudged some sauce toward the crust and buried the tails in the middle [???], then folded the bread over [????].  In this way, I was able to chew a couple of times without ever coming in contact with the tails, and then wash the whole thing down with milk.”

Upon reading this passage, I had a number of questions: Were the sardines grilled or pickled?  Were the sardines salty, and does Knausgaard have an antipathy for salty food in general?  What does Knausgaard think of whitefish?  Surely, he has eaten lutefisk before — this is a fairly well-known Scandinavian dish.  On page 377, we are given an answer:

“Lutefisk lunches with friends, well, that wasn’t a world I inhabited.  Not because I couldn’t force down lutefisk but because I wasn’t invited to that type of gathering.”

What of clams?  What of crustaceans?  Does he favor crab?  Does he enjoy shrimp?

The author answers this last question on page 150:

“Shrimp is what I loved most.”

He also favors American cuisine:

“Hamburger, fries, hot dog.  Lots of Coke.  That’s what I needed.  And I needed it now” [151].

We learn more than anyone would ever want to know about Knausgaard’s non-mainstream, avant-garde musical proclivities:

“The year before, when I moved, I had been listening to groups like The Clash, The Police, The Specials, Teardrop Explodes, The Cure, Joy Division, New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Chameleons, Simple Minds, Ultravox, The Aller Vaerste, Talking Heads, The B52s, PiL, David Bowie, The Psychedelic Furs, Iggy Pop, and Velvet Underground…” [88-89].

The point of this passage is to show readers that Knausgaard is cool.  He is nothing like the unhip residents of Tveit (“In Tveit there was no one who had even heard of all these groups” [89]).  Yes, it is true that this passage resembles a rather typical response to a social-networking inquiry (“What Are YOUR Favorite Bands?”).  Yes, it is true that any dolt could write such a list, but Knausgaard’s past is more important than your past, and despite appearances, he is not a literary fraud.

His brother Yngve is not quite as cool as Karl Ove.  Flicking through his brother’s CD collection, Karl Ove discovers a number of Queen CDs:

“When Freddie Mercury died, the revelation that shocked was not the fact that he was gay but that he was an Indian. / Who could have imagined that?” [269].

Again, don’t expect any irony here.  What you will discover instead are acres and acres of dumbed-down self-pity; the morose self-pity almost never ends.  Dumbed-down self-pity was never Proust’s deal, yo.  The result is gruelingly gruesome over-hyped tripe.

The hype surrounding this book is to be expected.  MIN KAMP is exactly the sort of commodity that would be hyped up in Europe and America at the beginning of the twenty-first century.  And not merely because of the author’s manifest good looks.  Yes, it is true: If Knausgaard were unattractive, no one would know of him or his autobiography.  Yet there is another, deeper reason for the predetermined hype.

We live in a culture of unconditional literalism.  It is hard to decide what is the worst feature of this culture: its illiteracy or its literal-mindedness.  Originally, media theorists theorized that the internet had metamorphic powers, that you could be anything or anyone you wanted to be on the internet.  If you are old, you can become young; if you are a woman, you can become a man, etc.  However, the precise opposite has happened: On social media sites, people expose themselves in all of their banality and triviality.

When one reads a genuine work of literature, one is able to inhabit the selves of the characters within that work.  One assumes their personae.  One translates one’s essence into someone who is entirely different from the reader.  For a number of hours, you can become King Macbeth or Emma Bovary.  Fiction is adultery by other means.

In the culture in which we live, there are no disguises or masks.  Everyone is precisely what one appears to be.  Our digital selves tend to be identical to our real selves.  This is the most painful joke of the twenty-first century: If you want honesty, go to the internet.

Why translate your essence into another human life?  The impulse to project oneself into another self has decayed.  The unconditional literalism of the internet has led to the erosion of empathy, of fellow-feeling, of the love for one’s brother and sister.

The internet has killed the human soul.

Dr. Joseph Suglia, the Greatest Author in the World


A review of BOTH FLESH AND NOT (David Foster Wallace) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

A review of BOTH FLESH AND NOT (David Foster Wallace)
By Dr. Joseph Suglia, the Greatest Author in the World

Published four years after David Foster Wallace’s career-advancing suicide (a despicable suicide that was an assaultive act against his widow Karen Green), BOTH FLESH AND NOT (2012) reprints essays and squibs that were originally written for various newspapers, magazines, and journals; one of the texts appeared as the introduction to an anthology of essays, another was appended to a thesaurus. Both online and print sources are represented. Through the collection threads a list of words and definitions that Wallace kept on his desktop computer.

The vocabulary list troubles me more than anything else assembled in this volume. Someone who professed to care very much about Standard Written American Usage, Wallace abuses many words himself.

Wallace thinks that “art nouveau” refers to a “decorative style of early 20th c. using leaves and flowers in flowing sinuous lines, like on vases, columns, etc.” [34]. This is innocence and nonsense. Jugendstil was much different than that. Beardsley didn’t always use “leaves” and “flowers”!

Wallace thinks that “birl” means to “cause to spin rapidly with feet (as with logrolling)” [35]. But “birl” also means, intransitively, to “whirl”; for instance, you may say that hot dogs or sausages birl on spits.

Yes, Wallace is right to think that “distemper” might denote “a kind of paint-job using watered paint” [165], but it can also mean “to throw out of order” or “bad mood” and could denote a viral disease that affects dogs and cats.

Wallace thinks that an “ecdysiast” is a “striptease artist” [165], but this has only been the case since GYPSY. An “ecdysiast,” etymologically speaking, refers to something that molts or sheds its skin, such as certain birds, insects, and crustaceans.

Wallace doesn’t know that Grand Guignol was horror theatre before ever it was “cinema” [190].

Throughout, there are many such compositional errors.

Wallace had abysmal taste in literature. It is good to see STEPS on a list of “five direly underappreciated U.S. novels” since 1960, but it ought to be stated that this novel, which is attributed to Jerzy Kosinski, was collaboratively written. Cormac McCarthy’s BLOOD MERIDIAN: OR THE EVENING REDNESS IN THE WEST has interesting content — the sort of content that one might expect to discover in a film directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky — but its prose style is a mere pastiche of Faulkner. I don’t know what to say about a person who thinks that Denis Johnson is a serious writer.

BOTH FLESH AND NOT is a disastrous embarrassment. Republishing these essays and squibs was not a good idea and besmirches the reputation of Wallace even more than D.T. Max’s horripilative biography does. Though he had many virtues, the ability to form strong sentences was not one of them. David Foster Wallace could not write a decent sentence to save his life.

Dr. Joseph Suglia, the Greatest Author in the World

A review of DERMAPHORIA (Craig Clevenger) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

A review of DERMAPHORIA (Craig Clevenger)

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

Did you know that most “Alpha Males” are, in fact, Beta Males?  And that most “Beta Males” are, in fact, Omega Males?  Craig Clevenger is an Omega Male who thinks that he is a Beta Male.  Chuck Palahniuk is a Beta Male who thinks that he is an Alpha Male.  Like all Omega Males, Craig Clevenger slavishly imitates the Beta Male.  Craig Clevenger apes Chuck Palahniuk’s this-is-how-pre-teens-talk writing “style,” which is no style at all.

Clevenger’s DERMAPHORIA (2005) will excruciate you with its illiteracy.  Consider the following sentences:

1.)    “Clumps of hair had melted together around one of his ears, which had swollen into a knot of blistered cartilage” [91].

How could clumps of hair melt together?

2.)    “He was sobbing as he spoke, trying to snow me with some cheap excuse like some eight-year-old while spitting out a stream of expletives with ‘hospital’ thrown in every three or four words” [Ibid.].

What?  This sentence is scarcely intelligible.  How could someone “snow” someone else with a single “excuse”?  “Eight year old” does not require hyphenation.  “Like” should never be used conjunctionally.  Taken literally, the phrase “some cheap excuse like some eight-year-old” means that the “cheap excuse” is like an eight year old.  Will MacAdam/Cage publish anything that comes over the transom, and did they copy-edit this book, or was the effort too herculean for them?

3.)    “I slip my fingers beneath your shirt to the slice of flesh above your hips that feels so good in the dark but you hate so much” [109].

Read literally, the final clause means that “you” “hate so much” in general, that “you” hate everyone and everything.  The context suggests, however, that “you” hate “the slice of flesh above your hips.”  A slightly less illiterate, slightly less irritating way of writing the sentence would be: “I slip my fingers beneath your shirt to the slice of flesh above your hips that you hate so much but that feels so good in the dark.”

4.)    “Some kid approached me with no finesse whatsoever, and asked me for ecstacy [sic]” [137].

Now, this is a sentence that only a beefhead would write.  Could Clevenger have come up with a more exciting verb than “to approach”?  Evidently not.  The comma is superfluous, and do I really need to point out that “ecstacy” should be spelled “ecstasy”?

5.)    “He was wearing tan work pants and dark brown work boots, and with the combination of colors, dark grey and tan, sitting in the sharp daytime shadows of the dilapidated desert house, he’s invisible” [97].

“He’s” is not the contraction of “he was.”  There is no contraction for “he was.”  When Clevenger writes, “dark grey,” doesn’t he mean “dark brown”?  The chuckies don’t care about such errors; after all, they aren’t very detail-oriented, are they?  Page after page, Clevenger is foundering and floundering, flailing and failing.  He cannot write.

Mencken once pointed out that most bad writers have congenital deficiencies — to write clearly, after all, one must think clearly.  But I would say that the converse holds as well: To think clearly, one must write clearly.  Clevenger does not know how to write because he does not know how to think, and he does not know how to think because he does not know how to write.  He is inarticulate and slow-witted.

Clevenger is an experienced writer of literature in the same way and to the same degree that a eunuch is an experienced lover.  He has no relationship to literature other than a negative relationship or the relation of a non-relation.  His sentences sound like Metallica lyrics.  It is not fortuitous that Clevenger’s Work in Progress is called SAINT HERETIC: One can hear in the title resonances of SAINT ANGER, an album by Metallica.  Like most chuckies, Clevenger has spent more time listening to heavy metal than he has reading books.

Craig Clevenger is a chuckling chucklehead.  He is nothing more than a soldier in Chuck Palahniuk’s army of mentally disenfranchised Everymen.

Dr. Joseph Suglia




by Dr. Joseph Suglia, the Greatest Author in the World


One of the most important claims of anti-foundationalism — what is usually called “postmodernism,” the making-fashionable of anti-foundationalism — is that nothing has a single, unified meaning and that systems that pronounce single, unified meanings are fascistic.  Anti-foundationalist writing / film opens and multiplies meanings.  No matter what you say about an anti-foundationalist work of art, you will be wrong: Another interpretation is always possible.  We are all familiar with the rapid occlusions of commercial writing / film — once an alternative meaning appears, it is just as quickly shut out.

Dave Eggers is sometimes referred to, erroneously, as a “postmodern” writer.  It is important to correct this misinterpretation.  Dave Eggers is not a “postmodern” (read: anti-foundationalist) writer.  He is a lazy, slovenly commercial writer who has an unattractive prose style.

Eggers’ most recent catastrophe, YOUR FATHERS, WHERE ARE THEY?  AND THE PROPHETS, DO THEY LIVE FOREVER? (2014), could have been written in two hours.  It is entirely composed of dialogue —  an easy move for a lazy writer such as Eggers.

The dialogic novel is certainly nothing new.  The mostly-dialogue form can be found in Evelyn Waugh’s VILE BODIES (1930), Charles Webb’s 1963 novel THE GRADUATE, and Natalie Sarraute’s satirical novel LES FRUITS D’OR (1964).  John Fowles’ A MAGGOT (1985) is the gold standard of the novel of dialogue (though it is not entirely told in dialogic form).  As flawed as Fowles’ novel might be, there has never been a stronger novel in this subgenre, as far as I know.  And of course, there is Chapter Fifteen of Joyce’s ULYSSES (the so-called “Circe” or “Nighttown” episode).  Sadly, most dialogue-driven novels these days are proto-screenplays.  Since the 1960s, most commercial novels have been proto-screenplays, and this, I would argue, has led to the death of literature.  (For reasons of economy, I cannot pursue this argument here.)

The title is taken from the Book of Zechariah (1:5).  The book’s learnedness ends there.  In a style that owes nothing to Zechariah, Eggers will condemn American Society for not giving Young American Men what they are owed.

Eggers’ prophet is Thomas, a thirty-four-year-old American.  His maleness, his age, and his Americanness are all important to understanding this novel as a cultural document.  Why the name “Thomas”?  We’re supposed to think of Thomas Paine (use contractions, or Eggers will get mad at you).

I write that Thomas is “Eggers’ prophet” because he has the same political convictions as Eggers: The money that the U.S. borrows from China should not be used to subsidize foreign wars, but instead should be used to finance space exploration, education, health care, and public television.  Thomas whimpers:

“You guys fight over pennies for SESAME STREET, and then someone’s backing up a truck to dump a trillion dollars in the desert” [42].  This is only one of the many jewels with which Eggers’ novel is bejeweled.

Eggers would like to persuade us that his prophet is a normal, likable young man, but his attempts at making Thomas seem likable and normal are nauseatingly ham-fisted.  Thomas is “polite,” “nice,” and “friendly” and says repeatedly that he has no intention of killing anyone.  Because Thomas tells us that he is a “principled” person (on page 7, and then again, on page 84, in case we missed it), we are supposed to believe that Thomas is a principled person.  There is very little logos in the novel, but there definitely is a great deal of ethos.

And a great deal of pathos.  Unhappily, all of the pathos is artificial, particularly the pathos that is communicated when Thomas “falls in love” with a woman he sees strolling on a beach.  The emotions in this book have the same relationship to real emotions that the fruit flavors of chewing gum have to real fruit.

Eggers would like to persuade us, then, that Thomas is a principled young man who kidnaps an Astronaut, a Congressman, an Overeducated Pederast Teacher, his own Mother, a Police Officer, a “Director of Patient Access,” and a Hot Woman; each of these characters is a lifeless stereotype.  Such a rhetorical strategy would be difficult for even a serious and careful writer and because Eggers is neither (don’t say it with a long “I,” or Eggers will get mad at you), the outcome resembles a railway accident.

Thomas is an Angry Young White Man of the same pedigree as Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, James Holmes, and Jared Lee Loughner.  And why is he angry?  Because his “friend” Kev never got on the Space Shuttle.  Because Thomas’s life didn’t turn out the way he wanted it to.  Don’t we live in America?  Aren’t Young American Men promised success and happiness?  Thomas rails against the Congressman:

“You should have found some kind of purpose for me” [37].

And: “Why didn’t you tell me what to do?” [Ibid.].

Why, Daddy, why didn’t you tell me what to do?  Why didn’t you “find a place” for me [47]?  Isn’t there a safe and secure place in the world reserved specially for me?  Why doesn’t the world NEED me?

It is so sad that Thomas was promised success and happiness (by whom?) and that he never received either (say it with a long “E”) of these things.  It is so sad that Kev never got on the Space Shuttle.  Thomas unburdens himself to the Congressman: “That just seems like the worst kind of thing, to tell a generation or two that the finish line, that the requirements to get there are this and this and this, but then, just as we get there, you move the finish line” [34].

The world owes us success and happiness, doesn’t it?  And when we don’t get it, we get real mad!  Much of the novel is based on the mistaken idea that Young American Men are entitled to success and happiness.  And Thomas represents all disenfranchised Young American Men.  As Thomas says to the Congressman — his substitute “father” — at the close of the novel:

“There are millions more like me, too.  Everyone I know is like me…  [I]f there were some sort of plan for MEN like me, I think we could do a lot of good” [210; emphasis mine].

This is the worldview of a stunted, self-pitying, lachrymose adolescent.  It is the worldview of Dave Eggers.

To return to the opening paragraphs of this review: Eggers, hardly an anti-foundationalist writer, thinks that life is essentially simple and that everything should have an unequivocal meaning: “You and I read the same books and hear the same sermons and we come away with different messages,” Thomas laments.  “That has to be evidence of some serious problem, right?” [45].

It has to be!

Perhaps the novel would be endurable if it were well-written, but Dave Eggers is a mushhead with all of the style of a diseased hippopotamus.  He draws from a stock of words that is available to most English-speaking humans.  He writes familiar things in a familiar way.  He has a problem with people who say “either” with a long “I,” but misuses the word “parameter” (twice, by my count).

The spiritlessness with which he writes is dispiriting.  The prose is lenient.  Serpentine sentences are superseded in favor of a simple syntax.  Apparently, I am one of the few people alive who enjoys reading sentences that spread across the page like flourishing trees.

Despite its many flaws, the book will be praised for the same reason that audiences laugh while watching SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE: Most human beings are followers and do what they think they are expected to do.

Dr. Joseph Suglia, the Greatest Author in the World


A review of A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING (Dave Eggers) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

A review of A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING (Dave Eggers)

by Dr. Joseph Suglia


All novels may be taxonomized into three categories: There are novels of plot, novels of character, and novels of language.  A novel of plot is driven by a story that could be synopsized without damaging the novel itself.  Simply read an outline of the plot, and there is no reason for you to read the novel.  A novel of character creates — or should create — living-seeming, recognizably human figures.  But these figures, of course, are nothing more than fabrications, nothing more than chimeras that seem to breathe and talk.  A novel of language makes worlds out of words.

Dave Eggers’ A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING (2012) is a novel of character, I suppose, but it doesn’t really work as a novel of character.  Nor does it work on any other level.  It must be said of this miserable little drip of a book that it fails as a plot-driven narrative, that it fails as the portrait of a character, and that it fails as a work of language.


Eggers has the tendency to write novels that are based on American high-school standards.  YOU SHALL KNOW OUR VELOCITY — a novel that is as sincere as those frat boys who raise money for the homeless — is based on ON THE ROAD.  THE CIRCLE was based on NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR.  A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING was based on DEATH OF A SALESMAN and EN ATTENDANT GODOT (the epigraph is from Beckett’s play: “It is not every day that we are needed”).  EN ATTENDANT GODOT is about the stupidities of faith, the stupidities of eschatology, and the infinitely postponed arrival (or non-arrival) of the Messiah.  And yet Egger’s Messiah arrives!  If Eggers wanted a classic about the degradations of growing old on which to model his tale, he should have turned to Bellow.  HENDERSON THE RAIN KING, anyone?

Alan Clay is a semi-employed fifty-four-year-old former bicycle manufacturer who is contracted by Reliant, a major IT company, to introduce King Abdullah to a holographic projection system.  The inaction takes place in King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), Saudi Arabia.  Every day, Alan and his enviably young colleagues wait in the desert for the arrival of King Abdullah.

Novels do not need to be realistic, but they ought to be convincing, and the question of probability comes up more than a few times.  If Alan is indeed “superfluous to the forward progress of the world” [75], why is he employed by the largest IT company of that same world and promised $500,000 if he succeeds in persuading King Abdullah to purchase the holographic projection system?

The novel is a novel about late arrivals, and Alan and his “Other” are forever arriving late to the party: Alan is too late to save his neighbor Charlie Fallon from self-drowning, Alan wakes up late on the day of his scheduled meeting with King Abdullah, Alan is “too late” (read: “too old”) to be sexually potent, King Abdullah himself arrives late, etc.  I would advise prospective readers to never arrive.


As synaesthetes know, everything has a color.  Eggers’ washout is not exactly an iridescent character.  He is relentlessly grey.

A character should be, to paraphrase the Hegel of THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF SPIRIT, an assemblage of Alsos.  That is: A character should not be one thing.  A character should not be simple.  A character should not be one-sided.  A character should be this AND ALSO that AND ALSO that.  Each of these traits should contradict one another.  Since human beings are complexly self-contradictory, why should characters not be, as well?

Regrettably, Eggers’ main character is flatter than a Fruit Roll-Up.  Alan is a never-was and was never anything besides a never-was.

While waiting for King Abdullah, Alan meets (guess who?) two sexually prepossessing young women: a gorgeous blonde Dutch consultant named Henne and a Saudi physician named Zahra Hakem who is intrigued by the knob-like excrescence on the back of his neck.  At one stage, Alan imagines that his cyst has sexual powers.  I could imagine the entire novel centering on the sexuality of Alan’s cyst, but no, that would have been too daring.  This is a Dave Eggers novel, after all.

Each appointment leads to a sexual disappointment.  Henne offers Alan sexual release in the bathtub of her hotel room, but Alan prefers the “purity” and “simplicity” [177] of the bath water instead.  Dr. Zahra swims topless with Alan (this, apparently, is done all of the time in Islamic countries), but her toplessness does not lead to a toplessness-inspired act of sexual release.

Eggers simply cannot let his ageing protagonist be sexually uninteresting to women.  Even though the novel pretends to be an allegory about the downfall of America in an age of globalism, it is really an all-American wish-fulfillment fantasy.  Are we credulous enough to believe that the generously breasted blonde Dutch consultant is sexually desperate?  And that Dr. Zahra lusts after Alan’s knobby cyst?  Apparently, Eggers thinks that we are.


Eggers is more of a summarizer than he is a dramatizer.  He tells more than he shows.  An example (from the novel’s opening salvo):

“[Alan] had not planned well.  He had not had courage when he needed it.  /  His decisions had been short sighted [sic].  /  The decisions of his peers had been short sighted [sic].  /  These decisions had been foolish and expedient.  /  But he hadn’t known at the time that his decisions were short sighted [sic], foolish or expedient.  He and his peers did not know that they were making decisions that would leave them, leave Alan, as he now was – virtually broke, nearly unemployed, the proprietor of a one-man consulting firm run out of his home office” [4].

Now, a hard-working writer would do the grueling work of showing us Alan’s failures and shortcomings rather than telling us about Alan’s failures and shortcomings.  Eggers is less of a writer than a publicist.  The passage quoted above reads as if it came from a cover letter addressed to a literary agent.

Wading through the brackish waters and fetid marshlands of Eggers’ prose is not much fun.  I never once got the impression that the writer was groping for the right word.  To say that Eggers’ prose style wants elegance and richness would be a gross understatement.  His word choices are bland and obvious, his vocabulary is restricted, his writing style is plain, his paragraphs are dull.  To describe Alan’s dispute with Banana Republic over a one-time purchase that has killed his credit score, Eggers writes, doltishly, “Alan tried to reason with them” [138].  This sentence could have not been written any more unpoetically and is yet another instance of “telling” rather than the laborious “showing” which is incumbent on every responsible writer of fiction.

Eggers’ writing is so bad that it is almost ghoulish.

I have heard it said of Eggers that he is a man who is “easy on the eyes,” and I have no doubt that this is true.  (His lecteurial admirers have a purely phenomenal interest in the writer.  That is to say, they don’t care about the writing; they are only interested in the writer qua man.)  Though I am not an adroit evaluator of male beauty, I suspect that Eggers-the-Man is indeed “easy on the eyes.”  It is a pity that the same could not be said of the books that he types.

Dr. Joseph Suglia


A review of Mark Z. Danielewski’s THE FIFTY-YEAR SWORD by Dr. Joseph Suglia


A review of Mark Z. Danielewski’s THE FIFTY-YEAR SWORD

by Dr. Joseph Suglia, the Greatest Author in the World


You can accuse an idiot of being an idiot, but this accusation will only dimly register in his primitive consciousness.  He will shrug his shoulders and continue being an idiot.

This raises the question, “Why criticize idiotic books at all?”  It is unlikely that a sharp-minded critic will improve a dimwitted writer.  And who will do the criticizing?  There are very few intelligent people left in the world, and in the country in which I reside, the United States of America, intelligence is condemned as a vice.  Nevertheless, we the intelligent must band together and identify idiocy whenever we come across it, especially when idiotic books such as Mark Z. Danielewski’s THE FIFTY-YEAR SWORD (2012) are praised by THE WASHINGTON POST as works of literature, if for no other reason than to secure the concept of “literature” and to protect it from abuse.

THE FIFTY-YEAR SWORD is undistilled swill, and it is impossible to understand how any serious person could defend such a book.  I am using the word “book” somewhat glibly, since what Danielewski and Co. have given us is a collection of blank pages, drawings (stitchings, really), and limp doggerel, all stitched together.

It might be useful to taxonomize the text into four categories.

Pages 2, 11, 13, 15, 17, 21, 23, 25, 27, 29, 31, 33, 39, 41, 43, 45, 47, 49, 51, 53, 55, 57, 59, 65, 69, 71, 73, 75, 77, 79, 81, 83, 85, 87, 99, 107, 117, 119, 121, 125, 127, 139, 143, 147, 149, 151,  155, 159, 169, 171, 175, 177, 181, 183, 185, 189, 193, 195, 199, 201, 205, 207, 209, 211, 233, 234, 235, 237, 243, 245, 247, 249, 255, 257, 259, 261, 263, 265, 269, 273, 281, 283, and 285 are entirely blank.

On pages 7, 8, 9, 19, 35, 37, 61, 63, 67, 89, 91, 93, 95, 97, 101, 103, 104, 105, 106, 109, 111, 112, 113, 115, 123, 129, 131, 133, 135, 137, 141, 144, 145, 153, 157, 160, 161, 163, 165, 167, 173, 179, 187, 191, 197, 203, 213, 215, 217, 219, 221, 223, 225, 227, 229, 231, 238, 239, 241, 251, 253, 267, 271, 275, 277, 278, and 279 are unaesthetic stitchings that look like food stains.  No words to speak of.

Pages 18, 66, 88, 92, 94, 96, 98, 100, 108, 114, 116, 122, 124, 126, 128, 130, 132, 134, 136, 138, 140, 142, 152, 154, 158, 162, 164, 166, 168, 172, 174, 176, 178, 184, 186, 188, 190, 192, 196, 212, 214, 216, 218, 220, 222, 224, 226, 228, 230, 232, 242, 244, 246, 254, 266, 270, 274, 276, and 284: Printed on each one of these pages is a single ill-formed sentence or phrase and nothing else besides.  On some of the more generous pages, there are two ill-formed sentences.  On some of the more meager pages, there is a single word or two words.

Pages 12, 14, 16, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, 30, 32, 34, 36, 38, 40, 42, 44, 46, 54, 56, 58, 60, 62, 64, 68, 70, 72, 74, 76, 78, 80, 82, 84, 86, 90, 102, 110, 118, 120, 146, 148, 150, 156, 170, 180, 182, 194, 198, 200, 202, 204, 206, 208, 210, 236, 240, 248, 250, 252, 256, 258, 260, 262, 264, 268, 272, 280, and 282: Erratically indented, badly written verse, approximately fifty-sixty words per page.  Multicolored quotation marks, single and double.  The orange quotation marks seem to refer to the character Tarff.  The mauve (?) quotation marks seem to refer to the character Ezade.  The red quotation marks to Inieda, the brown to Sithis, and the yellow (?) to something called “ittle Micit.”  Often, it is difficult to distinguish one color from the other, one character from the other.

Let’s tally up the numbers.

83 out of the book’s 285 pages are entirely blank.

67 of these pages are polluted with “illustrations” (for lack of a worse word).

This means that approximately 52% of the “book” is wordless: There are more blank pages and pages of imagery than pages with words on them.

And what of the words that Brother Poe stitches together?  What is it like to actually read this book (such as it is)?

Reading this “book” is as pleasant as eating sand.  The lines are atrociously stupid, abnormally boring, and excruciatingly illiterate.  Let me pause over some of the language, since it is the most offensive thing about this intolerably mushy mishmash of bad verse, blank pages, and ugly pictures.  Here are three examples:

1.)  “A few times a year Mose would generously serve up booze / and sweet / to fortipify the many strangers against the expected strangeness of her minglings…” [24].

A “sentence” that was clearly “inspired” by Joyce without any of Joyce’s elegance or genius.  When Joyce invented neologisms, he did so with a purpose.  The awful coinage “fortipify” neither enhances nor enlivens the text.

2.)“It was even in the falling apart of the breeze (though is there a breeze / if I can still feel it on my face?)…” [110].

Here, we have a non sequitur that does not even rise to the level of a simple paradox.

3.)“Where / upon / he began to swing the handle in a wide but deliberately / slow / arc as if to pass a long blade through the wicks of those five / candles nearly six / feet away where indeed a yellow panic there, / perhaps by extraordidinary coincidence, momentarily cowered / into small rounds of blue and drowning smoke” [240].

This is the sort of verse that only a bananahead would like and respect.

And if I were a bananahead, I would find THE FIFTY-YEAR SWORD impressive.  In truth, Mark Z. Danielewski is not a careful writer, and he does not have a feeling for words.  Blame should be also given to the seamstresses at the Atelier Z, who did a terrible job of stitching the stupid thing together.

Dr. Joseph Suglia, the Greatest Author in the World