“Please, we’re separated by the thinnest filament”
First published by boutique publisher McSweeney’s Press in July 2012 Dave Eggers’ novel “A Hologram for the King” hits the shelves this autumn in paperback. Bay Area resident Mr Eggers’ has many strings to his bow; publisher, editor, writer of both fiction and non-fiction and social entrepreneur, being the founder of non-profits like 826 Valencia and ScholarMatch.
In “A Hologram for the King” Alan Clay, a fifty-something American is visiting Saudi Arabia in an effort to sell a communications solution to King Abdullah. We meet Clay filled with questions; will this pitch to the elusive King succeed? (Will it even happen?) Will he earn enough to fill the black hole in his finances? Where will he get a drink? And what is that thing growing at the base of his neck?
Fairly quickly we see Alan Clay is a desperate man. He is desperate to revive a floundering career, to make a good impression and ultimately to be relevant. As the consultant on the team – a title that is held in disdain even by Clay – he is insecure in the presence of the ‘young’ tech savvy team that have created this loosely sketched marvel. If Alan understands the technology at all it’s only in the most basic way, and having been matched up with this team, the only measure of success for him is to sell this thing. But is the playing field level? With extensive backstory detailing Alan’s previous work outsourcing entire industries to far flung, more economical locations, we are not encouraged to feel too sorry for his predicament when he quickly realises the deck may be stacked against him.
So a central question at the heart of “A Hologram for the King” is where one’s place is in a globalised world. Americans buying bikes from an American company but manufactured 3000 miles away, Malaysian labouring on sky scrapers in the Arabian desert, cosmopolitan tech-brats as happy sitting cross-legged in a tent in the desert ghost town of King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) as in a Starbucks, are all positioned by Mr. Eggers as realities. He perhaps wisely avoids tying these threads together too neatly; they are the context for Alan’s situation and his crisis.
An oft mentioned feature of ‘Genre’ fiction is that there are certain rules that need to be followed. Crime, romance or science fiction novels will have a list of ingredients that more often than not are present. For fans, this is part of the appeal, but it seems that there are types of what’s known as literary fiction that have their own conventions and rules. That the protagonist of “A Hologram for the King” is a white male, aged within 15 years of the author, is a college educated type, is at a crossroads in life is not that startling. There is a long tradition of US or UK based male authors that find this character the most natural starting point, asking, as David Byrne put it, “How did I get here?”
But Mr Eggers possibly has bigger fish to fry than merely the ego and id of a white Anglo Saxon everyman. To some – like Pico Iyer writing in the New York Times – he is the inheritor of Normal Mailer’s crown.
The Saudi Kingdom depicted in these pages, is reflected through Alan’s outsider view. Indeed Mr Eggers visited Saudi Arabia prior to writing the novel and some of his recollections could be Alan Clay’s as he explored in a New Yorker interview. Descriptions of shopping malls with provocative underwear displays, illicit boozy parties in embassies, and a gun culture that Alan can quickly identify with, paint a peculiar picture of a culture actively probing the limits of acceptability. Almost every Saudi character given more than a few paragraphs of attention seems to believe a change has to happen but are unsure of when and how, from the charming cab driver Yousef, to the gifted doctor Zahra, they know the work-arounds and they use them as a matter of course.
When describing the environment much is going to be all too familiar to the western reader. The half built roads, condos and offices of the KAEC, the over eager estate agents offering Clay a great deal on a luxury dwelling in a ghost city. Clay is observer through much of the story, impotent in his efforts to influence things, and as he and we realise, not even possessing of all the facts in almost every situation. With a concise and direct style Mr Eggers’ effortless, light and enjoyable prose is never stodgy and disguises in some ways a narrative with a certain sadness at the core but one with some hope, at least for Alan Clay, if he can open his eyes and see it.
“A Hologram for the King” is published by Penguin
Review by CD
Categories: Book Reviews, Books
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