Six Good Books: Maggie Fergusson recommends—among others—a Dave Eggers tragicomedy, William Dalrymple conquering Afghanistan, and a short, sharp e-book
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2013
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (Hamish Hamilton, hardback, out now). America is no longer a land of dreams but one of recession-fed dysfunction. This is the thesis behind Dave Eggers’s tragicomedy, and he explores it through 54-year-old Alan Clay, a middle-management Everyman past his professional sell-by date. In the baffling heat of Saudi Arabia, waiting to pitch a holographic teleconferencing system to King Abdullah—a 21st-century Godot who never materialises—Clay revisits his past in a series of flashbacks, racked by loneliness and large, unanswered questions. Despised by both his wife and his junior colleagues, he swings between extreme hypo-chondria and a longing for the curtains to come down on his life. Eggers’s prose is brisk and spare, and his sensitivity to human frailty unnerving. One moment you’re laughing at Clay’s neuroses, the next they feel horribly familiar.
Silently and Very Fast by Candia McWilliam (Amazon, e-book, out now).
Kindle Singles, recently launched in Britain, are a stroke of genius—as long as you have a Kindle. To the writer, they give a royalty of 70% rather than the usual single figures. To the reader, for less than the price of an espresso, they deliver an invigorating shot—fiction or non-fiction, anything from 5,000 to 30,000 words—to carry you through a train journey, and keep your thoughts humming well beyond it. This one weaves an Edinburgh "Under Milk Wood" into the Greek legend of the Graiae, the three sisters who share one all-seeing eye. Opening on a freezing winter’s morning, it moves from a beauty salon to a betting shop, from a window cleaner to a lap dancer, all observed with a precise compassion. Like the snow that begins to fall at noon, everything in the story has both a bright and a murderous aspect. When, at dusk, the sisters gather in the wool shop, things turn very dark indeed.
The Last Days of Detroit by Mark Binelli (Bodley Head, hardback, out now). Detroit is the Ozymandias of cities: once mighty (home to Ford Motors and Motown records), then the victim of capitalist hubris, romantic in its ravaged decline. Mark Binelli, a Rolling Stone feature writer, returns to his childhood home and sends a series of punchy, acutely observed dispatches from a world turned upside-down. Mayors fight elections on a promise to demolish buildings; the gruesome dismemberment of a murdered youth doesn’t produce a single media report; wild pheasants fly through abandoned factories picked clean by thieves. Binelli is not a sucker for the "ruin porn" that has brought photographers flocking to Detroit, nor for easy "comeback narratives", but he writes with tenacious optimism. Artists are moving in; lawlessness inspires creative living—beekeeping, voluntary crime-fighting, impromptu blues concerts. Despite everything, he argues, this might yet become the first great post-industrial city of the 21st century.
Return of a King by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, hardback, out now).
In the spring of 1839 British troops poured into Afghanistan, on the slimmest of pretexts, and installed a puppet king. Three years later, they were forced into a bloody and humiliating retreat through the freezing midwinter passes. What happened between is a great cavalcade of a story that might, in unskilled hands, have left readers drowning in a quagmire of diplomatic and tribal com-plexity. William Dalrymple’s phenomenal achievement is to combine a steady overview of his broad canvas with a magpie’s eye for detail and a film-maker’s sense of when to shift the mood and focus. His writing is ebullient, but his conclusion is timely and grave. Any attempt to subjugate Afghanistan must, as one witness of that first invasion noted, be "temporary and transient and terminate in catastrophe".
Give Me Everything You Have by James Lasdun (Cape, hardback, out now). Written to keep its author the right side of mental collapse, this chilling tale is inspired by a dark muse. In 2003 James Lasdun assumed the role of "avuncular, rather eunuchy" mentor to a reticent-seeming student on his New York fiction course. "Nasreen" then morphed into a cyber-stalker, bombarding Lasdun with e-mails swinging from obsessive love to violent hatred. She blackened his Wikipedia entry, posted damning reviews of his work, and contacted his employers with allegations of plagiarism and rape. When he blocked her e-mails, she rose up, hydra-like, from new addresses. In contrast to his tormentor’s rabid outpourings, Lasdun writes with judicial clarity and control. I anticipated a dramatic denouement for Nasreen—arrest? imprisonment?—before realising, with a jolt, that the situation remains unresolved.
Bedsit Disco Queen by Tracey Thorn (Virago, hardback, out now).
When Tracey Thorn was a teenager, growing up in a suburban semi in Hertfordshire, she was so shy that she would only sing hidden inside a wardrobe. And even when she went on to become a singer of international acclaim—one half of Everything But The Girl, bewitching audiences with her controlled but keening alto—she remained diffident about pop-stardom. Good on its highs, she is even better on its lows: the lonely deflation as the roadies pack up after a show; the stage fright and self-doubt; the "infantalising" effect of being controlled by managers and agents. None of it would have been bearable without Ben Watt, her musical partner, lover, father of her three children and now husband. He’s the still centre of this book, which is perhaps less a memoir than an intelligent, reflective, faintly wistful love letter.