A Hologram for the King

“Literature is news that stays news.”  –Ezra Pound

I begin this review of A Hologram for the King with a wincing, narratively inconsequential quotation that I wasn’t going to include — though it spoke loudly to me — until the Aurora shooting snapped it back:

Who did young men talk to? Young men have no one to talk to, and even when they do, they don’t know what to say or how. And this is why they commit most of the crimes of the world.

That, like many other scorching insights that Dave Eggers artfully ignites in this splendid and beseeching novel, is no hologram. It is a crack of reality. Eggers gifts us with a telluric, gnostically modern story that speaks of many frustrations: of young men, trapped in the locked-in syndrome of Saudi Arabia; and of one not-so-young man — Alan Clay, the protagonist — a battered victim of his own follies and America’s global misdirection. There is no mincing of words: “Now he was fifty-four years old and was as intriguing to corporate America as an airplane built from mud.”

Alan is a consultant, sent to Saudi Arabia on behalf of an omnivorous, merciless global technology company named Reliant, with a mission to sell King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia a state-of-the-art, tele-immersion video conference system. A freighted hologram. It is a huge corporate deal for Reliant, and a last-gasp personal deal for Alan.

The name Clay is no accident; Alan, we learn rapidly, has been molded by everyone, and everything, except himself. Those shaping and ruinous hands include his ex-wife, his daughter, his friend’s suicide, his financial ruin, globalization, and his father’s primal energy, which threaten to overpower Alan’s wispy hold on life.

The novel begins with an epigraph from Beckett: “It is not every day that we are needed.” Epigraphs can be throwaways, rough signifiers of intent. This one is as predictive as DNA. I can’t think of another contemporary novel that’s as influenced by Waiting for Godot; even the wry, flat breath control of the prose strains with Beckettian tension. This is a novel largely about how best to strain meaning out of life during the vastness of the interminable wait, a wait grown bulky with pain by virtue of our own failures,  and the world’s smirking noncompliance. As Eggers puts it:

The greatest use of a human was to be useful. Not to consume, not to watch, but to do something for someone else that improved their life, even for a few minutes.

But Beckett is not the only literary master rattling around Eggers’s overstocked brain. Hologram is a kind of anxiety-of-influence attic, with echoes of Bellow, Cheever, Updike, Heller, Miller, and — to crash the category for a moment — Tom Friedman.  America’s slow-motion decline is a central character for Eggers. This is a novel of the moment and the age.

And all of that is juicily bundled into the first page, as Alan Clay checks into his hotel in Saudi Arabia after a long flight.

He needed to sleep. He had to travel an hour north at seven for an eight o’clock arrival at the King Abdullah Economic City. There he and his team would set up a holographic tele-conference system and would wait to present it to King Abdullah himself. If Abdullah was impressed, he would award the IT contract for the entire city to Reliant, and Alan’s commission, in the mid-six figures, would fix everything that ailed him.

What ails him is a laundry litany of woes that Eggers quickly dumps on the reader, the way 12b on an airplane might disgorge otherwise encumbered agonies to 12c. There is no feathery tease, no Yaddo foreshadowing. Staccato, incantatory sentences are crushed into short paragraphs, CliffsNotes of collapse: “He thought of his daughter Kit…he did not have the money to pay her tuition for the fall. He could not pay her tuition because he had made a series of foolish decisions in his life. He had not planned well.” As a result, he is “virtually broke, nearly unemployed, the proprietor of a one-man consulting firm run out of his home office.”

But Alan’s dream of the Big Sale fizzles. He’s less Billy Mays, more Vladimir and Estragon, as he’s forced to navigate eleven days of postponements and mind-numbing excuses, the absurdity of which allow Eggers to skewer Saudi society with deadpan venom. Day after day Alan drives from Riyadh to the King Abdullah Economic City — which Eggers shorthands as KAEC  — expecting the king. But he and his team of three shallow, befuddled, and desperate-for-adult-supervision twenty-something mini-consultants — sent by Reliant to complement Alan’s middle-aged limitations — merely wait in their giant, un-air-conditioned tent. Eggers does a magnificent job of capturing the surreal quality of their experience, the combination of Saudi politeness, condescension, and obfuscation.

The forced languor gives Alan the opportunity to surrender to an anthology of regrets, doubts, and memories. Many of these are searingly personal, but Hologram is more than a psychological portrait, it is an economic one. This richly giving work is a double eulogy, for a wounded, whimpering middle-aged white American male and a wounded, bleeding American economy, the one Tom Friedman warns us is a shell of its former self. “He had not had courage when he needed it” is how Eggers describes Alan, but the description holds for all of us.

Eggers pursues his economic forensics through the canny depth of the hologram as a command-and-control metaphor. It’s a proxy for a world that, itself, increasingly lacks reality, one that is there and not-there, seeable but not touchable. The conceit is everywhere, and while the impasto is heavy, the cumulative effect oozes potency.

The first surrogate hologram is the KAEC itself. Alan ends up with a driver, a young man named Yousef — who figures in a subplot that serves both to reveal the rottenness of Saudi society and to give Alan a chance to return to the soil, the glory of the physical.

Yousef, is convinced that KAEC is a fantasy that will collapse in economic ruin:

“…it won’t happen. It might have happened at one time, but there’s no more money…. They’re going broke in Dubai. Everything was overvalued and now they’re busted. They owe money all over the planet, and now KAEC’s dead. Everything’s dead.”

Later we learn that the cynical Yousef is right. The Wolfgang Puck and the Pizzeria Uno will forever remain under construction.

The American economy is a hologram, too. Eggers obsesses over its lack of physical mass, the collapse of manufacturing, our essential lack of manliness. He uses Alan’s father — who lives on a farm in New Hampshire and whose physicality shames his son  — to drive the point home: “Every day…all over Asia, hundreds of container ships are leaving their ports…. Talk about three-dimensional, Alan. These are actual things. They’re making actual things over there, and we’re making websites and holograms.”

Once, when he was working for Schwinn, and before the company went bust, Alan labored in the world of the real, selling “something solid that would be integral to a thousand childhood memories.” Eggers turns Alan’s private despair into a national keen; today, our bicycle production is outsourced to China, where “ninety-nine percent…are being made…in one province.” Eggers is channeling both the Left and the Right; one of the few things that unites America is a mutuality of despair.

Eggers finds holograms in scales grand and quotidian: even the simple act of selling a home is chimerical. Eggers describes the process with the uninflected, unflinching prose that characterizes the novel.

A woman had staged Alan’s house. There are people who do this. They come into your house and make it more appealing than you ever could. They brighten the darkness you have brought into it with your human mess.

But the hologram-in-the-room is Alan’s life itself. Relentlessly, the narrator’s observations and Alan’s interiority merge in a crescendo of the futile. Eggers just lays it out.

Year by year, there was less work for a guy like him.

The meaning of his life was an elusive seam of water of hundreds of feet below the surface, and he would periodically drop a bucket down the well, fill it, bring it up, and drink from it. But it did not sustain him for long.

And from the point of view of the three young consultant comrades:

They thought he was nothing, an irrelevant man. Did they know he had swum in the Rio Negro with crocodiles?

It is here that we feel the press of the great desperation of sad white males, the frayed and baying creatures of Bellow, Roth, Cheever, Updike, and even Heller (in Something Happened). Alan wonders: “Why was he in a tent a hundred miles from Jeddah, yes, but also why was he alive on Earth. Very often the meaning was obscured.”

The hollow existential thud you hear when you knock on Alan’s life has many echoes, and Bellow is one of the loudest. Alan’s letters to his daughter, which he starts, tosses, and launches again, are unmistakably Herzogian:

“Kit, your mother is made of different stuff than you or me. More volatile and flammable materials.”

“Dear Kit, The key thing is managed awareness of your role in the world and history. Think too much and you know you are nothing. Think just enough and you know you are small, but important to some. That’s the best you can do.”

“Kit, Live long enough and you’ll disappoint everyone.”

As for Alan’s sexual encounter with Zahra, the Saudi-Swiss-Lebanese doctor who operates on him to remove a benign cyst (perhaps the only benignity in his life), it feels like Roth or even Updike could have written it:

…they found themselves apologizing for various failures, for parts of their bodies that would not cooperate, or did so only intermittently. When he was ready, she was not, and this sent him shrinking. Still, they caressed each other desperately, clumsily, with diminishing returns.

And then there is the consuming shadow of Willy Loman. Alan is nothing but a salesman. He dropped out of college to sell Fuller Brush products. His first boss, Joe Trivoli, taught him that everything can be sold using one of four angles: money, romance, self-preservation, and recognition. Those are angles that Alan tries to remember, struggles to employ, but — as it was for Willy — the world he knew has vanished.

Back in the day, everyone cared what Alan had to say. When he would “…find himself in a hotel anywhere…with half a dozen young sales reps, he knew he had an audience that wanted to hear about what worked and had not…. They’d laugh at his jokes they’d hang on his every word. They respected him and needed him.”   

There’s that needed again.

But Eggers jolts us out of that warm memory bath:

Now…he had nothing to teach these people. They could set up a hologram in a tent in the desert, while he’d arrive three hours late and wouldn’t know where to plug the thing in. They had no interest in manufacturing or the…person-to-person sales he’d spent his life perfecting. None of them started… selling actual objects to actual people.

So when Alan recalls building a wall in his suburban house — “Building the wall gave Alan as much pleasure as he’d known in years” — it is impossible not to be reminded of what Biff says about his father in the Requiem section: “You know something, Charley, there’s more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made.”

This is serious stuff, and realizing he is onto something that requires no artifice, Eggers’s bag of meta-tricks has been put aside. “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over,” wrote Hemingway, and Eggers takes the admonition to heart. Gone is the self-conscious narrative smudging and preening that came to irritate those who prefer their fiction/nonfiction boundaries to be as aggressively policed as the border between North and South Korea. The only Dave Eggers to be located in Hologram is contained, unexperimentally, in the wry and unabashedly empathetic voice of the omniscient narrator.

There is also no complexity of plot in A Hologram for the King. Density is not an Eggers hallmark; even his hybrid-fuel books are high-concept, virtually panting for a screenplay deal. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the novel that lofted him to the apogee of the pop altitude by simultaneously abstracting and domesticating tragedy, is a memoir that can be summarized on a scrap of the heart: young man raises his younger brother after both their parents die of cancer. His last book, the novel What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentine Achak Deng — a fictionalized treatment of life of one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” — was a bluntly simple narrative.

So even the most impatient reader will be thrilled with Eggers’s instant plunge into the heart of his story.   The novel’s narrative business  — not exactly a Jamesian labyrinth — is delivered in one convenient package, FedEx style, on the first page. Alan’s mission, his distress and duress, his life-busting business failure, his friend who commits suicide by walking clothed into the lake next to Alan’s house, all the thematic scaffolding is erected in this zygotian stage.

For a novel largely about waiting, Eggers whisks us with almost breathless speed to the end, where the wait finally resolves on page 310 of a 312-page novel, when the king makes his appearance. He perches on a “throne-like chair” and observes the demonstration of the hologram, which “went off flawlessly.” The king “clapped gently but said nothing. There were no follow-up questions. Neither he nor anyone from his entourage spoke to anyone from Reliant…there were four layers of men between him in the king, who left in minutes…”

The group disperses immediately. “The young people of Reliant” flee Saudi Arabia, but Alan remains. Dutifully, he returns to the tent for the next three days. Eventually and unsurprisingly, he is informed that the contract has been awarded to a Chinese firm that could provision the services quicker, and for half the price. Globalization’s final assault.

Alan, though, is in no hurry to go back. He decides to stick around for a while. Perhaps other work will appear. Perhaps one of the Saudis will take pity on him. Perhaps he really has no place to go. The book ends simply and sadly. “So he would stay. He had to. Otherwise who would be here when the King came again?”

It’s not just Eggers’s ending, though. Beckett returns to close the book along with its author; that valedictory line is virtually interchangeable with the resigned yet hopeful fatality of this one from Godot: “If he came yesterday and we weren’t here you may be sure he won’t come again today.”

Dave Eggers is forty-two, and he inhabits the fifty-four-year-old Alan Clay with startling emotional fullness. He is looking forward, not back. The three young consultants — Rachel, Cayley, and Brad —  are curiously unformed. They have almost nothing to say and certainly nothing to think. This is not a novel that attempts to capture the Millennial sensibility; it has nothing in common with deconstructions of youthful angst like Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision, Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, or Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men. It could even be said that Eggers is disdainful of his generation-now characters; after they they’ve lost the bid, he notes that they go “back to the their laptops and seemed happy enough now that there were couches in the tent, and food, and a strong wi-fi signal…”

A Hologram for the King deserves much praise and, pace Willy, attention. It has era-defining potential. It is possessed of a hugely understanding heart, and a contemporary but not arch voice that vibrates with well-controlled intensity and anger. Even tiny moments, like Alan’s description of how a meaningless problem with a Banana Republic purchase destroyed his credit and his hopes, are devastating. They capture the fragility of everything. We are all waiting on the precipice.