"The Parade" by Dave Eggers, (Knopf, 192 pages, $25.95.)
It's hard to tell if Dave Eggers, one of the most important literary figures in the world, is telling a parable with his new novel "The Parade" or whether he is performing a bit of sleight of hand, trying to make fools of his readers.
There are two primary characters here, Four and Nine. They are paving a new road in an unnamed country recently devastated by civil war. The road will connect the developed north to the undeveloped south. The road must be done on schedule because the leaders of the country are set to have a parade.
They are a two-man crew, but Nine feels more like a drifter, here mainly for the money and the adventure. Four is a company man, diligent, detail-oriented, uninterested in anything but doing his work promptly and perfectly.
It doesn't take long to realize the two men are of no use to each other.
Nine is adventurous and unreliable at his job. He is supposed to be clearing the path for Four, who is driving a paver that lays down pristine asphalt and paves it at the same time, but instead Nine gets sidetracked, goes into the village, sleeps with the young women there and eats their indefinable meats.
Four, who eats his prepackaged meals and checks his watch mechanically, is left to do most of the work on his own, dealing with distractions and potential disasters that Nine should be there to handle for him.
Four becomes so instantly annoyed at Nine that it becomes impossible to like either character, which can make for a slog when it comes to storytelling.
And what of the story? There will be accidents, misunderstandings and ominous warnings. At first it seems that the dichotomy is between Four and Nine. Nine sees the world as a place to be explored; Four sees the world as a place to get in and out of. Both believe they are helping.
By the time his story abruptly ends, Eggers has presented a basic philosophical conundrum: How can we help what we cannot understand?
Global history has answered that question a thousand times over. The bones and the blood are buried in our soil, just waiting to be paved over.
"When You Read This" By Mary Adkins. (Harper, 376 pages, $26.99.)
It's a risk to write a hilarious novel about grief and regret. It's a bigger risk to tell the story solely through virtual communication. Mary Adkins succeeds on both fronts in this epistolary novel about Iris, a woman who died of cancer at 33, leaving behind blog posts, complete with spam comments.
Both distraught, Iris' employer and her sister argue over whether to publish the blog. Their texts and e-mails, punctuated by online therapy sessions, bouts of internet gambling and the hapless antics of a clueless intern, tell a story of flawed people who have connected under the worst of circumstances. It's a quick, worthwhile read.
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