A review of A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers
@@@ (3 out of 5)
Dave Eggers is a phenomenon. Author of 17 books and two screenplays, including fiction, nonfiction, and a memoir, several of them best-sellers; founder of McSweeney’s publishing company; and co-founder of the celebrated literacy project 826 Valencia, the man is only 42 at this writing. I’m envious and a little in awe. (Well, maybe a lot in awe.)
In A Hologram for the King, Eggers inserts himself into the psyche of Alan Clay, a latter-day Willy Loman, a long-time salesman for the late lamented Schwinn Bicycle Company who has been retained by an IBM-like global firm to sell a huge package of IT services to the octogenarian King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Alan stands in for the millions of white-collar, middle-class Americans displaced by globalization, automation, and a world that’s moving too fast for comfort. He has a daughter in college, an abusive ex-wife, a best friend who literally went off the deep end and died, an unpayable mound of debts to his friends, and an excessive liking for alcohol. He also possesses a large lump on his neck that he’s convinced is cancerous and responsible for all his recent clumsiness and erratic behavior. In other words, Alan is a mess. I found it hard to sympathize for the man.
However, Eggers writes beautifully. His descriptions of the Saudi environment and the close-up look he offers from time to time about Saudi life are fascinating. His smoothly flowing prose draws you seamlessly from one scene to the next, shifting between flashbacks to Alan’s life before his current assignment and his frustrating weeks in Saudi Arabia. But the story Eggers tells is far from uplifting or enlightening. Alan demonstrates his inability to relate to others in sustained relationships, first with the young Saudi man who drives him around, then with a young Danish consultant who wants sex from him he can’t give her, and finally with the female Saudi doctor who surgically removes the lump on his neck. All this unfolds while Alan is waiting for the King to show up for him and his young team to demonstrate the holographic communication system they’re certain will close the big deal and right all the wrongs in Alan’s life.
In other words, not much happens in A Hologram for the King. I believe it was Joseph Heller who defined a novel as a book in which something happens. (It was probably somebody else, but Heller wrote one under that title.) Maybe it’s silly of me, but I prefer novels where stuff happens.
To date I’ve read only two of Eggers’ previous books, both of which I thought far superior to this one: What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a fictionalized account of a very real South Sudanese child soldier, and Zeitoun, a nonfiction treatment of the travails of a Syrian-American family caught up in the chaos of New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina. You can read my review of Zeitoun by clicking on the title in this sentence.