Eggers’ latest offering, A Hologram for the King, is a strange book. It is deceptively simple in sentence and story and yet it packs a significant punch as it peels back the scabs of the body beneath.
The body is America and the book is a postmortem for the American dream. This is a post-manufacturing, post-American imperial, post-2008 state of the national soul and its search for meaning and direction. This is the nation on the couch. And yet that would be too neat and the patient too eloquent. Instead, we have Alan—shambolic, disappointing and disappointed.
The basic premise of the book is that Alan has come to Saudi to land the Big Deal that will allow him to pay for his daughter’s college tuition. He is bankrupt and the work of manufacturing he once knew (bicycles) has died and gone to China.
Much of the book’s draw is around Alan and the sense that this is a man on something of a downward spiral; he may or may not be ill and he is determinedly self-destructive in his relationships. What surprised me is that over the three days I took to read the book I caught myself, not thinking about the book and its plot points as—for the most part—there are none that are distinguishable, but worrying about Alan. Worrying about him in the way you might worry about a friend and then resolve to call them later, just to check in.
The book does to some extent read as a book of two halves through; as with everything in the book and the Saudi world it describes it is unclear where the line is. The first part of the book has its geography firmly anchored to Alan’s hotel room and the conference tent of the proto-city out in the desert. But then a shift occurs. Alan is obliged to visit a doctor and from then on it begins to take excursions further into the Saudi interior and down the coast. There is no particular change in register; we simply start to travel further and with the increase in plot points comes an inevitable rise in tempo. The shift from passivity to engagement feels a little forced, as if Eggers realised he couldn’t just leave Alan drinking in his hotel room or sweltering in a tent in the desert, so he had better give him something to do and sends him off sightseeing. This is not to say that the chapter dealing with Alan’s trip to Youssef, the taxi driver’s home village isn’t wonderfully executed—it is, and has some of the most haunting and pitch-perfect writing in the novel. It is simply its place in the sequence of events.
Characters too, in particular Youssef, drop off the page and while understandable in terms of the narrative, the fact that the Alan himself doesn’t give them a passing thought on the page is an oddity and leaves the reader feeling a little unsatisfied.
Eggers’ sentences are frequently so simple as to appear naked, even to a point where it is easy to overlook some exceptional writing. Everything is as clean and clear as the desert city they describe. There are of course clever word plays on Alan the ‘hollow man’ trying to offer a ‘hologram’ for a king, The King, and so on. Everything here has at least two faces, just like the society it describes.
Saudi, as portrayed by Eggers, has a surreal fluidity of lines—appearance and reality, lines of decorum and legality—and the book has a fluidity to it as well. Reading it, one does have the feeling of suspension or limbo and yet, and here is the skill in the writing, you still want to know what happens to Alan. Desperately.
Some of the most lyrical and soul-searching writing comes through Alan’s attempts to write to his much-loved daughter as he tries to explain his failures in marriage and money. The voice shifts and softens every time Alan takes up his pen, and it offers a wonderful alternative to the spare lines that control the rest of the page.
It is the pull of this Everyman, infused with a good dose of cherry pie and almost whimsical optimism, that against all odds he is always looking for the next new thing, the next deal that could save him—as close as he is to financial and social oblivion. He still turns up in the tent every day in the hope that he will see the King and land The Big Deal.
Eggers is frighteningly intuitive with middle-management language and habit and while it is easy to be distracted by the oddity of modern day Saudi Arabia being represented in fiction (where everyone seems to be drinking bootleg liquor and attending orgies at the Danish embassy and secret drag races deep in the desert) it is also easy to overlook how peculiar Alan and the slice of salesman America he represents actually is. This is not necessarily rich ground for magnificent storytelling, unless, and this is surely intentional, we look to Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman. This is the death of the American as a global salesman.
Alan represents the American dream that absolutely refuses to believe that it won’t work out despite the fact that there are clearly other players on the court now. For a writer concerned with the current American zeitgeist this is a generous, democratic book which allows for the proposition that this century will be about the effect of the globe on the American, and not the other way around, as in the previous century. Alan is in some sense the archetypal frontier American. And yet, Eggers renders him impotent. The American frontier cowboy has lost his confidence.
Of course waiting for any king to return must speak to Christianity—America’s other great religion, after commerce—and the final line in the book offers the reader a bit of a gut punch to make the point.
Sometimes the form overwhelms the content but this is a clever and very beautiful book and is certainly worth much, much more than its purchase price.