But this year’s vacation book, Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the King, practically fell into my hands at the Brown University Bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island. We’d stopped in Providence on our way up to Cape Cod so that my husband and brother-in-law could show their dad, my kids, and me their favorite college haunts, and the Brown bookstore naturally made the cut.
It isn’t often that I get antsy in a bookstore, but Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum had already won the honor of being my summer vacation book, and I was eager to get to the Cape. Still, others in the group wanted to browse, so I found a literary fiction display and picked up A Hologram for the King. Five minutes later, I was at the cash register without having looked at a single other novel. Eggers’ four-page first chapter hooked me with an honest, troubled character in desperate straits, hoping for one last chance to redress his many past mistakes.
Alan Clay, the middle-aged American protagonist of A Hologram for the King, needs a lucky break he knows he doesn’t deserve. He is a pioneer of outsourcing who has discovered too late that his own expertise is no more indispensable than that of the factory workers whose jobs he has shipped to Asia. Alan is broke and frightened, working on commission as a consultant for a tech company. The company has sent him and a team of young techies to pitch IT services to the king of Saudi Arabia in the King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), a half-built desert metropolis that may or may not have a future.
Alan and his team plan to show the king and his entourage a hologram of their associate in London interacting with them in real time, selling the Saudis on their advanced communications technology. If the king is impressed with the hologram, Alan will get a mid-six-figure commission, enough to fund his beloved daughter’s next year of college, catch up on his mortgage, and pay off enormous debts to friends and associates left over from his failed start-up. Pressing though his financial obligations are, Alan wants the money for deeper reasons: He needs, if only for this one last time, to be a winner again, a salesman, an American living the Dream.
Alan is befriended by his driver, Yousef, a young Bedouin with a complicated love life, who is amused by both Alan’s old jokes (all new to Yousef!) and his Western naïveté about Saudi Arabia. Yousef, whose father has built a fortress on top of a mountain with the profits from his sandal shop, doubts that KAEC will survive the reign of King Abdullah and tells Alan not to worry about being late for his meetings with the king, which Yousef doesn’t believe will take place. Once Alan and his team are set up in an un-air-conditioned tent with temperamental wifi, just outside a super-modern and mostly-empty office building, the reader begins to wonder, too. Why isn’t the team inside the building, which has floors of empty office space? Why won’t anyone in the building tell them the truth about anything? And why is everyone in KAEC so unfailingly polite?
Alan spends a great deal of time in between postponed appointments with the king alone in his hotel room, drunk on illicit liquor, worried that a cyst on his neck is a malignant tumor pressing on his spine, sapping his strength and dulling his wits. He writes draft after draft of well-meaning letters to his daughter about her irresponsible, unkind mother, his ex-wife, whom Alan still can’t quite bring himself not to love. He pushes aside persistent thoughts about his neighbor, Charlie Fallon, who became so dangerously philosophical that he had committed suicide slowly in sight of the entire neighborhood. A natural salesman, Alan fears pessimism and overthinking, but lonely, anxious, and drunk in a country he can make no sense of, he can hardly avoid either.
If you hated Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, you may find his sparer, sharper prose here a vast improvement. Alan Clay is a simple man, forever mistaking holograms for reality, whose perspective requires no stylistic pyrotechnics to replicate. Structurally, however, Eggers is up to some tricks. Every event in the story, from the most casual encounter to the most dramatic, works both on the literal and allegorical level. Alan is a hapless character, plagued with worry, longing both for human connection and for his former sense of mastery, struggling to succeed in an environment he can’t understand. Yet he also represents, at times, a complacent post-Cold War America failing to understand its role in the globalized 21st century, its desire for agency and action exceeding its actual effectiveness.
A particularly dramatic example of this duality happens at Yousef’s father’s mountain village, where Alan is invited to join a group of local men hunting a wolf that has attacked a neighbor’s sheep. Alan, convinced that “[t]he man who pulls the trigger will have done something,” stays up all night concentrating, sure that he will kill the wolf and win the group’s respect. Instead, he fires at the first creature that moves near the sheep, which turns out to be their young shepherd. He misses the boy, fortunately, but can’t stop thinking about the murder he nearly committed:
Alan did not sleep. He tried to calm his thoughts, but everything came back to what he’d almost done. Because he hadn’t done anything for years or ever, he had almost done this. Because he had no stories of valor, he had almost done this. Because the efforts he’d made toward creating something like a legacy had failed, he had almost done this.
In the morning, Yousef sends Alan back to his hotel with another driver. Alan apologizes again and again, and asks Yousef to continue to be his friend. Yousef responds, “Give me some time. I have to remember what I like about you.” The world has fallen out of love with a feckless America that thinks it can win loyalty at gunpoint, but perhaps there is hope. Alan’s sincerity, like his naïveté, is as American as Disneyland, as American as optimism itself.
Julie Goldberg blogs at Perfect Whole. She is seeking representation for her debut novel, Lily in the Light of Halfmoon and working on her second.