I only knew Dave Eggers’ work by reputation, so I was surprised by how clean and controlled this book — especially its prose — turned out to be. I had expected something mawkish and self-celebratory. Eggers attracts a lot of ironically detached venom online. One would like to say it’s simply because of his success, but other writers who are at least as wildly successful (let’s say Junot Diaz) don’t cause eyerolls when their names are mentioned. Maybe he’s still living with the consequences of the cheek of titling his first book what he did.
Not much happens in the first two-thirds of A Hologram for the King, which is fine. Stasis has been baked into the conceit. A fifty-something washed-up salesman for a large IT firm, and his much-younger team of technicians, have been sent to camp out in a tent in Saudi Arabia waiting to give a flashy sales presentation to King Abdullah, who, Godot-like, continually fails to show up. While waiting, the salesman muses on his successes and failures in life, which seem to revolve around the theme of globalization, conveniently enough for the efforts of a “serious novelist.” He also explores the nearby desert, where a multibillion-dollar Dubai-like “planned city” boondoggle is attempting to come to life. This is a real thing, apparently: the King Abdullah Economic City. That boondoggle, of course, is precisely what has driven our hero and his company to the desert. In the last third of the book, he has a set of surreal, semi-violent adventures with some of the locals, then makes the sex with a lady doctor, and then he realizes that he is doomed. The end.
I liked it well enough.
It’s definitely in the “middle aged crazy” genre that my college friends and I used to make fun of. All the earmarks are there: formerly successful man who is now struggling after a recent divorce; clueless offspring who completely depend on him and whose disappointment in his failure is the motivating force that keeps him trying to succeed; unlikely sexiness to women he has just met; utter, irrevocable regret and failure dogging his every step, etc. It could easily be a mid-eighties Irving, Updike, Roth, or Ford. The only difference is that I didn’t read those books when I, myself, was middle-aged. That’s a big difference, though. I find I have more compassion for the befuddling failures of middle-age now than I did when I was in my twenties and planning to rule the world.
Elsewhere on the Web:
Because, I think, of the timeliness and trendiness of his topic set (globalization in this book in particular), as well as his brashness and whatever, Pico Iyer of the New York Times believes that Eggers may be “our new-millennium Norman Mailer.” I wasn’t aware that each millennium had to have one, and (what’s more vexing) the distribution pattern seems wonky as fuck (the last-millennium Norman Mailer occurring so near the end of the cycle, the new one occurring so near the beginning, means that they came only a few decades apart, leaving a gap of a thousand more years or so before the next, whose work will surely be much more difficult due to the delay). But what do I know? I know nothing.
Like Mailer, he’s almost underrated precisely because he’s so ubiquitous and dares us to mock him with his unapologetic ambitions. Yet where Mailer was consciously working in a deeply American grain, with his talk of revolution and transcendence, Eggers speaks for a new America that has to think globally and can’t be sure where the country fits on the planetary screen. And where Mailer was bent on showing us how America could remake the world, Eggers, with ferocious energy and versatility, has been studying how the world is remaking America. … more
Cressida Leyshon’s interview with Eggers for the New Yorker’s “Page Turner” blog is worth reading:
It started with thinking about this businessman, Alan Clay. He’d been kicking around in my head for a couple years—his state of mind, his background, his place in the economy and in his life. He was a salesman, and was then in manufacturing, and like so many in that line of work, his place now is unclear, his expertise superfluous. I always knew the book would find him adrift, but when I heard about the King Abdullah Economic City, it seemed inevitable that Alan would be there, not exactly knowing why, but waiting for the king to determine his fate. … more