Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Read Before

When our book club read A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers, I told the neighbor who picked it that I had read the book before, as one of Malcolm Bradbury's novels, in which a civilized but ineffectual man ventures into the world of the less civilized but forceful. At the time, I had in mind Stepping Westward (with the less civilized being Americans) , though the only Bradbury I had recently read and which fit the pattern was Cuts, where a writer ventures into the world of made-for-TV movies.

Last week I found a copy of Rates of Exchange at Second Story Books. Partway through, I realized that I had read some of this novel thirty years ago. I may not have read it all, for I remembered only the concluding incident. It does not quite fit the pattern of A Hologram for the King, though it has some similarities: the ineffectual man in a  tougher society; the ineffectual man who is for some reason, not clear to the reader, curiously attractive to women; too much alcohol; cultural misunderstanding.

The original pattern for Rates of Exchange may be Candide. More recent example of the pattern would be Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall or Scoop, novels that take an innocent through all manner of incidents but leave him essentially unchanged--reading theology at Oxford or writing about the great crested grebe at Boot Magna. Bradbury's Angus Petworth loses in the concluding incident of the book, the one I had remembered, the main artifact his travel to Slaka has brought him. He is left like the man in The Third Policeman who must leave underground all of the remarkable goods he has acquired there. The protagonist of A Hologram for the King, Alan Klay, is changed--he is thinking of staying in Saudi Arabia.

And Eggers's Clay is more plausible as a man changing, for he has a history. Bradbury's Petworth has a CV, as authority on ESL and traveling expert for the British Council.  Yet there isn't much too it that we see: a lecture on English as a global language, a lecture on the uvular R, mentions of a wife back home with a handful of attributes. History intrudes more on A Hologram for the King,  the decline of American industry and the rise of Chinese. In Rates of Exchange there is a mention of a recent royal wedding, and the background of the Cold War; but that wedding left little impression on this American, and that phase of East-West relations could have been any time in two decades.

Having said that, I did enjoy Rates of Exchange. One of these days I will probably find a copy of Stepping Westward, read that again, and enjoy it. And whether or not I find and read The Russian Interpreter again, I will remember that it is by Michael Frayn, not Malcolm Bradbury.

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