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The Disappointment Advantage: Why We Like to Read About Less Than Successful Characters in Literature

Hello readers,

I just finished reading Dave Eggers book, “A Hologram for the King”, published by McSweeney’s, July 2012.  Please find a New York Times book review link below:


Mr. Eggers’ novel centers around a main character, Alan Clay, a consultant and former bicycle manufacturer originally from Dedham, Massachusetts, on a last chance venture to restore his faith in himself his daughter’s faith in him, as well as a hoped-for to return to solvency.  Clay has obtained a contract from Reliant Enterprises on dubious terms, supposedly leading a trio of young IT experts to present an purportedly impressive hologram presentation of the company’s wares to the King of Saudi Arabia in KAEC, or King Abdullah Economic City.  I found myself thinking of KFC each time I read the abbreviation; please forgive me.  Basically a victim of the globalization he inadvertently helped to create, Alan’s state of being seems to fluctuate between disappointment and hope.  He seeks out new experiences, writes endless unfinished but promisingly truthful letters to his daughter about himself, his broken marriage to his daughter Kit’s mother Ruby,  (in whom she is also deeply disappointed).  We don’t meet Ruby in the novel; she exists through description and memories of her impulsive, revolutionary nature. The decrepitude of American manufacturing, the loss of pride in manliness and the ability to hold forth in action and create a legacy are the enduring themes of this book.  I love the moment in which Alan is talking to Youssuf, a young man whom he befriends, and the true meaning and purpose of Alan’s devotion to the manufacturing of bicycles becomes apparent.  Alan’s relationship to his father is rocky at best, yet it is clear that there is a strong desire in Alan (continually frustrated) to be recognized and admired by his father.  An anecdote shared with Youssef about his father’s escape from a WWII prison camp aboard a bicycle reveals the above-mentioned tie to Alan’s quest for recognition and purpose.  The beauty in this moment is that Youssef immediately makes the connection that Alan has never before noticed, even though he has cherished and recounted the anecdote numerous times throughout his life.

The emptiness of the unfinished KAEC, the impending failure of the business transaction which eventually is given to a Chinese contractor, Alan’s retreat into inebriation, his attempted relationships with women he meets, his friendship with Youssef which fizzles after he joins a hunting party and in an effort to impress locals accidentally shoots a shepherd boy he mistakes for a wolf, Alan’s inability to pay his debts and his daughter’s college tuition, continual miscommunication with his father…all of these aspects of Alan’s attempts to redeem his existence leave the reader with a sense of disappointment. 

Even the ending of the story is vague and disappointing, perhaps a purposeful creation of the author to leave us feeling unfulfilled.  A reflection of our own lives, most often less than full, less than clear, less than heroic.  The disappointing protagonist is every reader, in our heart of hearts.  It is so much easier to identify with a character who fails than one who embodies the god-like qualities of success and fulfillment.  We all wish to be at the pinnacle, yet most of us secretly find ourselves feeding from the bottom.  In real life, this is less than satisfying.  Somehow in art, the loser, the failure becomes iconic and heroic in his lack of defined and purposeful action come to fruition.  I feel that the vulnerability in the reader is cracked open and an intimacy is created between reader and flawed character, so as to share something most of us would never dare share with the world at large.  And the loser in literature gives his reader a great gift: by proxy, the reader becomes heroic in his or her everyday simplicity, bungling mistakes and unfortunate choices.

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