I came of age with Dave Eggers’ writing, beginning with A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which described a number of themes that were central to my life when I first read it in 2001. My emerging adult identity was stirred by the raw urgency of his writing and the audacity of a twenty-something eager to process his inner angst and distribute the results through bookstores and libraries around the world.
Since 2001, I have read each and every of his ten major works. His first three books — A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, You Shall Know Our Velocity, and How We Are Hungry — are intimately personal, first person, and mostly apolitical. They use Hemingwayesque simple, short sentences to describe the world as it is. Unlike Hemingway, the earlier incarnation of Eggers was willing to share the anxious monologues of his own insecure mind in a refreshingly honest way that pokes fun at the phoniness surrounding us.
Something changed in 2005 when Eggers was turned 35. He became an advocate for public school teachers in the US and co-authored his first work of non-fiction, Teachers Have it Easy. The next year he published What is the What about Sudanese refugee Valentino Achok Deng, which established a formula of long-form novelistic profiles of unlikely heroes — including Zeitoun set in New Orleans and his latest book, The Monk of Mokha set between Yemen and San Francisco.
There is a third category of Eggers’ books, which taken together espouse a political worldview. They include the 2012 A Hologram for the King, a sympathetic portrayal of a 50-something white American male middle manager who has lost all dignity in a globalized, technological 21st century. The next year, Eggers published The Circle, a techno-dystopian critique of how we are losing our authenticity and mental autonomy in the anxious social media-driven search for self-worth. The very next year, 2014, Eggers released his least known and most political work, Your Fathers, Where Are They? And Prophets, Do They Live Forever? It is, admittedly, a boring book made up entirely of unbalanced dialogues between Thomas, an emotionally off-kilter 30-year-old struggling to find his place in the world, and an assorted cast of characters he has drugged, kidnapped, and taken to an abandoned military base on the California coast. Thomas is, as one reviewer puts it, “disillusioned with America and ill-equipped to deal with freedom.”
That’s a pretty succinct summary of the worldview and ideology that emerges from Eggers’ political novels. As he travels around the country, Eggers must see a country with total freedom, but lacking in direction and meaning. How do we create meaning for ourselves in a world that presents us with few challenges and offers us few opportunities? There are no meaningful wars to fight. No place to explore. No industry to build. No religion to follow. No new ideas to develop. Ours is the era of total freedom and many of us haven’t found a better way to use that freedom than the distractions of social media. (Then again, the same was said of the lackadaisical suburbanite watching sitcoms in the 80s and 90s.)
All of the above is preamble to share my views on Eggers’ latest novel, The Monk of Mokha, which has been roundly criticized by reviewers for the predictable charge that Eggers, a PWM (“privileged white male”), has appropriated the story and compelling character of a young Yemeni entrepreneur. It’s worth pausing for a paragraph on the role of race in Eggers’ novels. In broad strokes, Eggers either writes about directionless, anxious White people in search of meaning (Alan from Hologram for the King, Josie in Heroes of the Frontier, Mae in The Circle, Thomas in Your Fathers …) or brown people who heroically overcome adversity to create great projects while helping others (Valentino from What is the What, Abdulrahman from Zeitoun, and Mokhtar from The Monk of Mokha). Eggers uses his white protagonists to pessmistically pick apart the decline of the American Dream. And he uses his protagonists of color to optimistically explore the continued possibility of the American Dream.
The Monk from Mokha is very much about the continued possibility of the American Dream told through the story of a young Arab man from San Francisco’s poorest neighborhood, the Tenderloin. Eggers writes as much in the prologue:
But his story is an old-fashioned one. It’s chiefly about the American Dream, which is very much alive and very much under threat. His story is also about coffee, and about how he tried to improve coffee production in Yemen, where coffee cultivation was first undertaken five hundred years ago. It’s also about the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, a valley of desperation in a city of towering wealth, about the families that live there and struggle to live there safely and with dignity. It’s about the strange preponderance of Yemenis in the liquor-store trade of California, and the unexpected history of Yemenis in the Central Valley. And how their work in California echoes their long history of farming in Yemen. And how direct trade can change the lives of farmers, giving them agency and standing. And about how Americans like Mokhtar Alkhanshali—U.S. citizens who maintain strong ties to the countries of their ancestors and who, through entrepreneurial zeal and dogged labor, create indispensable bridges between the developed and developing worlds, between nations that produce and those that consume. And how these bridgemakers exquisitely and bravely embody this nation’s reason for being, a place of radical opportunity and ceaseless welcome. And how when we forget that this is central to all that is best about this country, we forget ourselves—a blended people united not by stasis and cowardice and fear, but by irrational exuberance, by global enterprise on a human scale, by the inherent rightness of pressing forward, always forward, driven by courage unfettered and unyielding.
That’s precisely what the story is about. And I loved it. I loved it as an American, a San Franciscan, a lover of coffee, and an intense admirer of anyone willing go to ridiculous lengths to pursue a dream.
Dave Eggers has become so preposterously successful as a novelist that he’s an easy target, especially as a PWM who writes about an assortment of people and places. I understand the criticism. And I’m grateful for each of his novels. I’m grateful that his writing has been part of my own coming of age.