Ah Dave Eggers… Is there any greater American author writing now? I think he’s pretty hard to beat. He gave us Zeitoun and What Is The What. He made a fully featured novel out of Where The Wild Things Are, which was not necessary… but excellent. Then there’s McSweeney’s, the publishing house, and McSweeney’s the literary magazine which had stories from Etgar Keret, Neil Gaiman, and Adam Levin all in one issue!
Oh and he did the introduction to Infinite Jest which is what first drew me to the novel in the first place. Well, his introduction and the, while I’m being perfectly honest, size of the rack on the girl who initially recommended it to me.
But I digress.
A Hologram For The King
June 19, 2012
I’ve been putting off writing about this novel for about a month. At first, I wasn’t sure why. I mean… it was part of a long string of downer reads (The Fault in Our Stars, which I finished just a couple of days before, some Dan Fante short stories, and I’m currently fighting through the last third of Adam Ross’s Mr. Peanut), so I definitely needed some down time away from the subject matter.
I don’t know if that’s it though. I read dark books fairly often. I read depressing books fairly often too. Typically, they don’t get to me that much. After all, I’ve been reading all kinds of off-kilter stuff for years, since I discovered John Fante and Charles Bukowski in college. Happy endings? Not so often.
And not so in A Hologram For The King either. But considering most of the early part of the novel does it’s best to portray the main character Alan Clay as a sort of 21st century Willy Loman… it isn’t terribly surprising.
At the start, Alan is in Saudi Arabia, attempting to set up a meeting with King Abdullah so he can feature the tech company Reliant’s amazing new hologram communication technology. The hope is that the King will be impressed and use Reliant for all aspects of the new city’s technological expansion.
The King’s city, known as King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC, for short) is to be a marvel of the highest order. It will serve as a major economic, educational, and cultural center, with various opportunities for people and businesses… if it is ever completed. Many of the characters Alan speaks to throughout the novel voice skepticism that the project will ever see the light of day.
Alan has a particularly high stake in this deal because Reliant has made it clear that if he doesn’t come through on this job, it will be his last job for the company. Combine that pressure with the looming foreclosure on his house, his daughter wanting to go to a prestigious (and expensive) college, and the strange lump that has developed on his neck… well, Alan’s serious about getting things done right.
But there are constant barriers to his success.
For one thing, no one ever knows when the King will be in his shell of a city. Because of his status, no one can know his movements until they happen, to avoid assassination attempts. So instead of specific times and days, Alan and his crew are shacked up in a hotel about an hour away, waiting for their moment to perform.
For another thing, Alan can’t seem to get the customs of the country correct. Though he has a good rapport with his driver, a man named Yousef, Alan doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the Saudis he interacts with.
And finally, Alan’s confidence as a salesman has been shot after being majorly responsible for the downfall of Schwinn as a major power in the production and sales of bicycles. Because of his insistence that Schwinn join the global movement, Alan made himself (and most American workers) irrelevant to the process… from production to sales.
Still, Alan tries his best to fit in, especially as the arrival of King Abdullah seems to be more and more mythological, like spotting Bigfoot in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. He spends a night overnight with Yousef at Yousef’s childhood home: a fortress miles and miles away from any large city. But Alan, with all the comedic timing of a fart in church, jokes that he’s taking photos for the CIA while begins to unravel the new friendship.
But Alan, despite his tendency for self-pity, doesn’t let much get him down. He pursues a relationship with a fellow transplant from Denmark, as well as the doctor who eventually operates on his neck lump (is it serious?). This comes after many moments when Alan drunkenly recalls the various problems he had with his ex-wife Ruby.
In the end, though, the novel is about failure. Alan has been failing his entire life and seems to be at rock bottom. He’s already lost his wife, is losing his home, and will probably lose his daughter if he can’t pay for her college tuition. He suffers from low self-esteem, erectile dysfunction, and the general ravages of middle-to-old age.
Despite all this, Eggers manages to end the novel on the bit of an uplift. We’re hopeful for Alan as he continues his negotiations… But where will it all end up for Alan? Eggers is wise enough to not let us know. Instead, we have to be satisfied that Alan’s story has ended for us… and that it continues for him, if only briefly.
This book has it all, really. Humor, social commentary, a bit of allegory here and there, and an extremely unlikely main character… though for post-modern writing, Alan Clay isn’t terribly atypical. What really surprised me was how much I liked him by the end. There’s something to be said for his bulldog tenacity in the face of what seems to be an inevitable ending.
That said… it isn’t Eggers’ best. I enjoyed What Is The What and Zeitoun much more. But Alan’s story is compelling, interesting, and well written, as one would expect from Eggers. Plus, the art design by the incomparable Jessica Hische (who has also done a great collection of leather classics for Barnes & Noble) is beautiful… one of the best designed books in my collection!
So what’s next for Books and Bits? Well… I’m gonna be working from now through the 20th on an entry for a McSweeney’s essay contest, but I’m still going to try to fit in another blog post (or two).
But since I’ll be busy… I bet you can look forward to a Top # list! How wonderful for you!
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