Eggers’ latest is the flipside in many ways of The Circle. Where that novel attempted to show how technology gives the appearance of expansiveness whilst making life ostensibly smaller, here he explores the opposite: a pressured life of quiet desperation slowly given hope by the calm imbued by nature.
Josie, the narrator of Heroes of the Frontier, leaves her life in Ohio (a failed marriage, a dental business ruined by mishap) to flee in the company of her two small children, Paul and Ana, to Alaska. Like The Circle, and A Hologram for the King for that matter, Josie’s journey is not perfectly linear. There are missteps and mistakes (she isn’t careful with money, for one thing), there are worries (particularly about the lack of a plan) and, at times, there are fears of what she has gotten herself and her kids into.
Some of these fears are existential:
“Wherever she was, she could be content, and could do her work, or feed her children, or temporarily love a man like Carl, and live in the town she lived in, in the country she’d been born in, but a thousand other lives presented themselves to her daily and seemed equally or more worthwhile.”
Some of the fears are actual, rooted in the present:
“This could be the cause of all modern neurosis, she thought, the fact that we have no immovable identity, no hard facts. That everything we know as foundational truth is subject to change.”
And some of the fears are actual, rooted in fires (dogging their footsteps as they drive a random path through Alaska), freak storms and the odd people they chance across:
“She had fled the polite, muted violence of her life in Ohio, only to drive her family into the country’s barbarian heart. We are not civilised people, she realised.”
It is in the midst of one such storm, towards the climax of the book, when you can’t help but wonder if a terrible fate will actually befall them, that Josie wishes bravery for her children above all things, bravery being that quality that breeds a certain kind of human. It feels like a parcel of wisdom.
All things considered, it’s quite a calm book, free of the kind of fireworks and flourishes with which Eggers made his name as a younger man. Your enjoyment of the book may be dependent on your willingness to travel at Josie’s speed. For this reader, however, more than willing to stop and take in the sights with Josie and her young family, it’s a confirmation and a consolidation of Eggers’ growing powers. The man just gets better and better.
Any Cop?: Eggers’ breathless second novel was You Shall Know Our Velocity! His latest has lost the velocity but gained a wealth of experience via interludes of disappointment and helplessness. Big thumb’s up from us.