Tracy's blog

I’m Tracy Au and I have graduated from the Professional Writing program from university. I am an aspiring screenwriter, so this blog is used to promote my writing and attract people who will hire me to write for your TV show or movie. I write a lot about writing, TV, movies, jokes, and my daily life and opinions. I have another blog promoting my TV project at www.thevertexfighter.blogspot.com.

Monday, January 2, 2017

"A laughing matter"/ "The line between comfort and cruelty"

Sept. 10, 2016 "A laughing matter": I cut out this article by Philip Marchand in the National Post on Jul. 14, 2012:

Alan Clay, the hero of Dave Eggers’ novel A Hologram for the King, is a type not unusual in real life but rather rare in literature — the compulsive joke teller. “He’d been tested, even,” Eggers writes. “A group of friends, a few years ago, had made him tell jokes for two hours straight. They thought he’d run through all that he knew by then, but he’d only begun. Why he remembered so many he’d never know. But whenever one was wrapping up, another appeared before him.”

That Clay loves jokes is understandable. Humour is solace, and Clay, a 54-year-old freelance business consultant at the beginning of the novel, could use some. Eggers, savvy in the way of narrative, starts off with his hero in a pickle — he’s out of work, he’s deep in debt, he can’t pay his daughter’s college tuition. A firm called Reliant has hired him, however, to pitch their system of Internet technology for the King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), now being constructed in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. Clay has a passing acquaintance with the king’s nephew, and the Reliant executives believe that may give them an edge. It’s one of many delusions in the novel.

The firm’s real ace is a holographic teleconferencing system — a salesman in London can physically remain in London while appearing to stand and talk to an audience at the KAEC. It’s an astounding technological feat, like conjuring spirits. Clay hopes it will clinch the deal, and that his share of the IT contract will solve all his problems.

Meanwhile he has jokes to fall back on. They are more than an individual’s idiosyncrasy. They have an affinity with the author’s style. Nothing kills a joke like an elaborate set-up, and Eggers’ style in this novel has the brevity of a welltold joke — he doesn’t exactly stint on details but he never lets them weigh down the narrative, and this quality, combined with the equivalent of quick cuts in a movie, lend the narrative its headlong impetus.

The absurd logic of jokes and the scenario of a bad dream combine in the novel, whose action is the long nightmarish delay in the promised appearance of the king. The novel begins with an epigraph from Samuel Beckett, and it could certainly be retitled Waiting for Abdullah, but Kafka also casts his spell in this novel, with people and places that seem to come out of nowhere, and a king who also seems to be everywhere and nowhere. In this dark comedy, a lump on Alan Clay’s neck becomes almost a fetish — Clay hopes it will explain, with its malign presence, all his deficiencies, and that its removal will constitute an exorcism.

But Clay’s story is more than an individual drama. His fate is closely intertwined with recent American economic history, another dark comedy. His part of that history begins with his selling bicycles, a product he loves, made by American workers — until the company abandons its factory in Chicago. “We’d tossed out a hundred years of expertise,” Clay reflects. “You want your unit cost down, you manufacture in Asia, but pretty soon the suppliers don’t need you, do they? Teach a man to fish. Now the Chinese know how to fish, and ninety-nine percent of all bicycles are being made there, in one province.” In the end, Clay has no job and only the voodoo techniques of the door-to-door salesman he first learned as a Fuller Brush man.

The three technical wizards at the Reliant display at KAEC — Alan refers to them consistently as “the young people” — have never sold actual things. Selling actual things is so pre-Facebook. Instead they commune all day with their laptops with the concentration of chimpanzees investigating food sources, and regard Alan as useless. They are comic figures in what is basically a comic novel, a novel in which the most crucial aspect of a person is how he or she dresses. The long white tunic in traditional Saudi dress, the sleek business suit, the white shirt and khakis of a technical consultant, all identify the wearer. Attacked by a mob of Asian workers, Alan can’t believe they don’t get the message of his white shirt and khakis — it signifies he’s a Westerner and invulnerable to the likes of them.

Eggers’ challenge is to keep our sympathies engaged with his comic hero while not probing too extensively into his feelings. Too much information about Alan’s daughter and his ex-wife, for example, would throw the novel off its axis. An exuberant romantic finale would have the same effect.

What Eggers does do is maintain a certain level of yearning in his hero that the reader can identify with, while at the same time not steering his narrative into the domain of tragedy or brutal realism. The key is contrast. On one hand, Alan finds himself in a desperately ugly environment, a flat, relentless desert unfit for human habitation. The existing buildings at the KAEC are not beautiful — there is an empty pastel-pink condominium, a welcome centre “vaguely Mediterranean in style, surrounded by fountains, most of which were dry,” and a 10 storey glass office building, “squat and square and black.” His motel smells of chlorine. No wonder he is dying to get out into the night air and the stars.

Contrast also arises between Alan’s present occupation of selling holograms and his memories of camping out in a rugged mountain with his father, and, as an adult, of building a stone wall in his garden. What fun that was — lifting the rocks, spreading the mortar, constructing an object that wouldn’t collapse under pressure. Manly stuff, pre-information technology. Too bad the officials of the local zoning department made him tear it down.

When a Saudi friend takes him to visit his home in the mountains of Saudi Arabia, Alan can hardly believe his good fortune. His host and some of the villagers give him a rifle and let him in on their hunt for a wolf that has killed some sheep. No more telling contrast can be imagined between this wolf hunt and his present occupation of sitting around waiting for the king to see a hologram.

In this situation as well, however, the spirits of comedy rule. They will not allow the hero to savour a primitive triumph, an affirmation of his natural manliness. That would be too easy. Instead, Alan almost causes a disaster. In this novel, he is doomed forever to be at least partly thwarted, doomed never completely to satisfy his yearnings.

Meanwhile the suspense about the king’s visit is maintained to the very end. The actual denouement, after the resolution of the suspense, is not very satisfactory. It doesn’t matter. We have had a bitter taste of life in the global village, but not a despairing one, and our acquaintance with Eggers’ hero has been most agreeable.



"The line between comfort and cruelty": I cut out this article by Donna Bailey Nurse in the National Post on Jul. 14, 2012.  This is a sad book review:


Daughters Who Walk This Path tells the story of Morayo, a Nigerian girl, whose life is cruelly altered when she is sexually molested by a relative. The novel spans three decades — from Morayo’s blissful, Yoruba childhood in the 1970s, through her traumatic adolescence, into her troubled twenties and thirties. The assaults occur early in the novel, and the remainder of the book explores how rabid patriarchy, sexual superstition and cultural tradition work together to exacerbate the pain of abuse. At the same time, Kilanko demonstrates how family custom and African traditions serve to strengthen, uplift and guide.

Superstition plays a major role in the story, which opens when Morayo’s baby sister is born albino. In-laws blame Morayo’s mother for the little girl’s condition, preposterously accusing her of spending too much time in the sun. Naturally, Morayo resents this new baby who has brought dissension into their home. But her mother soothes her fears; she explains that people are often superstitious about things they don’t understand. Over the years, Morayo and her little sister develop a deep attachment, emblematic of the sisterly bond between African women.

Author Yejide Kilanko lives in Chatham, Ont., but was born in Ibadan, Nigeria. She belongs to a wave of Nigerian women writers committed to examining the intersection between gender equity and female sexuality. Her writing also reflects the influence of Chinua Achebe, particularly in the way certain passages unfurl as virtual pageants of the African rituals and traditions surrounding engagements, weddings, births and deaths. Like Achebe, Kilanko embraces many customs and beliefs as life affirming, while deeming others dangerous and cruel.

This web of cultural ambivalence snares Bisoye, Morayo’s mother. She is the one who first warns Morayo about the dangers of ignorant attitudes. But it is also her blind adherence to family custom and sexual superstition that sets the stage for her daughter’s rape. Custom insists that Bisoye welcome her troubled nephew into her home, even though he has been caught breaking into a female student’s bedroom. Foolhardily, she leaves him alone with Morayo overnight, which is when he rapes her — the first of many times.

Morayo is afraid to tell her mother about the abuse, mostly because in the past she has responded hysterically to the most innocent queries about sex. After Morayo divulges the truth, she wonders if she should have remained silent. Her parents treat her like damaged goods. What’s worse, they act like her knowledge of sex threatens to contaminate her little sister. By the time Morayo reaches university, she feels worthless and behaves accordingly.

An older cousin, Morenike, offers Morayo friendship and, most significantly, an example of survival. A single mother, Morenike, is a scholar and political activist. At 15, she was raped by a family friend, an assault that resulted in the birth of a son.

With Morenike’s rape, Kilanko hints at the pervasiveness of sexual abuse. She lays out a more helpful response. Morenike’s famously fiery mother publically humiliates her daughter’s attacker, a powerful member of the community. She sends Morenike to the country to live with her wise maternal grandmother, who affirms the child’s value daily. In the village, the women meet weekly to weave baskets. It is an opportunity for young women to ask their elders for advice about fertility difficulties, a stubborn husband or a challenging situation.

It is not often a novel contains such an array of finely etched female characters; every one of them as individual as a woman you might encounter on the street. The interpersonal dynamics between mothers and daughters especially are masterfully achieved through dialogue, cadence and inflection of voice.
And yet, Kilanko relies too heavily on this gift, which remains limited in its ability to convey visual and political context. Kilanko does not manage to strike a tone that encompasses the theme of the novel: Good and evil lie side by side. The reader is repeatedly caught off guard; when an unruffled Morayo sees a dead body hanging in a field, for instance, or when political thugs assault Morenike in the market. These incidents do not merely surprise; disconcertingly, they seem to come at us from outside the world of the novel. It is possible that Kilanko fails to reconcile the presence of good and evil on the page because she has failed to reconcile the presence of good and evil within her culture. Or maybe there’s too much love in her life.

On the other hand, the novel’s design is sophisticated and beautiful — an elaborate interlace of story, African proverbs, traditional fables and contemporary works by African women. Daughters Who Walk This Path has its imperfections, but like the Nigerian society it depicts, it is elevated by a richness of story and tradition.





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