I saw an outstanding film called English Vinglish this weekend. Though the entire film is memorable, one of my favourite moments was a scene where the protagonist arrives in America visibly nervous about how she’ll manage with her limited English skills, and her seatmate on the flight wishes her well on her stay, and says, “Don’t worry about anything. It’s now time for them to be scared/worried about us“.
He is smiling and confident because of India’s rising economic strength, and in the film’s treatment of a woman altered understanding of herself and her changing relationship with her family, a larger tale of changing economic and cultural rules on a global scale is told.
Through a different story and different characters, the theme of the rise of “non-Western world” and the decline of America is also addressed in Dave Eggers’ new book A Hologram for the King. If you haven’t read it already, I recommend the read for the following five reasons:
1) The World is Changing
The book centers around the story of Alan, an American who comes to Saudi Arabia to bid for an IT contract for KAEC (the King Abdullah Economic City) on behalf of the company he works for called Reliant. KAEC is meant to be a massive project, and Alan desperately needs the commission from the contract to resolve his personal economic failures and limited career prospects. In telling his story, Eggers tells a larger story of America’s shifting financial power and the decline of its manufacturing sector. Against the “real-life” backdrop of an election that has focused so much on domestic jobs and restoring America’s economic strength, it is a timely read.
2) Urban Planning is Changing
The book argues that the most exciting and innovative planning work is not happening in North America anymore. In my own graduate work, I attended lectures where planners such as Larry Beasley praised the vision and resources of cities like Abu Dhabi while exhorting domestic planners to embrace the challenges of Canadian cities with creativity, not blind “rule-following”. In this book, the main character’s experience with municipal planning is facing obstacles/penalties when attempting to build a simple three foot wall; in KSA he is desperate that the King should follow through on his dream of an entire city. This book also suggests that city building can act as a battlefield where war and hostile relations between nations can be addressed.
3) This book is beautifully constructed
Eggers describes KSA and Alan’s struggle with Saudi Arabia well. He desperately needs the IT contract, but he is also fearful and incredulous of the place, and the combination leaves him weak. In one scene in particular, he passes by a playground and sees women in “charcoal black burqas” with their children. The sight of “their hands stretched forth” to play with their kids strikes fear in his heart. In another scene, he sees “young women in abayas, glittering abayas on their forearms, groups of young men hungrily inspecting them (p.220), and he judges what he sees.
As a result of this cognitive dissonance, he is incapable of performing anything successfully. He imagines tumours, he is unable to catch the hotel shuttle, and he cannot write successfully to his daughter, meet the KIng, or be with a woman. And his own powerlessness and tense waiting is carried throughout the book by sentences that are lean and efficient. Each sentence is carefully crafted. Each word has to fight for its survival.
The topic of the decline of America’s manufacturing sector is timely against the backdrop of the current US election, but throughout the book there are references to recent events that we should continue to think about. The events in Gaza. The BP spill. In these references, and Alan’s discomfort when thinking about them, there is an opening to think about our own understanding and responses to these events.
This book has some wonderful passages. Below are two of my favourites.
a) “Kit you know the key to relating to your parents now? It’s mercy. Children, when they become teenagers and then young adults grow unforgiving. Anything but perfection is pathos. Children are judgemental on an Old Testament level. All errors are unforgivable, as if a contract of perfection has been broken. But what if one’s parents are granted the same mercy, the same empathy as other humans? Children need more Jesus in them” (p.104)
b) “The Earth is an animal that shakes off its fleas when they dig too deep, bite too hard. It shifts and our cities fall; it sighs and the coasts are overtaken. We really shouldn’t be here at all.” (p.102)