Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Hologram For the King

by Dave Eggers

A Hologram for the King marks the first fully fictional book that I've read by Eggers, since What is the What, his brilliant novel about a boy fleeing the war in Sudan, is really non-fiction in its basis, as is Zeitoun, his account of a family's struggles in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  Both of these books show the strength of people in the most extreme of situations - war, famine, natural disaster, and America's Kafka-esque approach to fighting terrorism.

Hologram is not like that at all.  Its focus is on the decay of America's middle- and working-class, and American industry in general, as well as its diminishment on the world stage.  Alan Clay is an aging salesman who finds himself in late middle age with no idea what has happened to his employment, marital, and social status.  As a young man, he was a hugely successful executive at Schwinn, the bicycle company, before its business evaporated, a victim of its own drive for efficiency and cost-reduction through out-sourcing.  Now Clay is struggling to pay back the debts accrued through his attempts to start his own bicycle business, and to pay for his only daughter's college education.

Clay has been sent to Saudi Arabia to pitch a holographic communication system to the King Abdullah Economic City development, with the hope that Reliant Inc., the company sending him and three assistants, would become the IT provider's for the King's dream city of the future.  This is Alan's last chance at reaching anything approaching success, and he knows it.

The problem is, he and Reliant's team are clearly an afterthought.  They are left to languish for days in the KAEC's presentation tent, and no one has any idea when the King is going to arrive.  Alan succumbs to his own apathy, with the help of a little boot-legged siddiqui, and perhaps a mysterious growth on the back of his neck.

Alan is not the most sympathetic of characters at times; his bewilderment of the loss of privilege he, and by extension, his country, has suffered can be a little annoying, but there are a few very memorable characters filling this book.  The best is Yousuf, who we first meet as Alan's driver when he misses the shuttle bus to KAEC on his first day there.  Yousuf has been educated in the US, is the son of a very successful sandal shop owner, and is utterly and overwhelmingly bored in his country, where there are no opportunities for someone like him.  Much as Alan has become the face of America in this book, Yousuf, and later a female doctor, becomes the face of KSA, underscoring the differences between the two countries.

Eggers is an easy, capable writer.  He captures the present moment remarkably well, and writes Clay from a full cloth.  The other characters are not as well-developed, but that's because we really only see them from Alan's perspective, despite the use of 3rd person narration.  Alan's the American; of course all other characters are peripheral.

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