Let me tell you a bit about the protagonist of Dave Eggers’s new novel, A Hologram for the King. Alan Clay has made many mistakes. He’s past his prime. He’s deep in debt and has bad credit. He has some skills, but they are underappreciated–the values of the world have changed. He is working on a project that, if it succeeds, will keep the wolves at bay. The problem is that the success of the project depends almost entirely on the whims and caprices of powerful people who are barely aware that he exists and who don’t particularly care about his troubles.
So perhaps you can see why I, as a humanities graduate student in my thirties, might find this novel hard to read. As I spend a significant portion of my professional life trying to convince college students to move beyond “relatability” in novels, I am aware of the irony of seeing myself in the protagonist of this book. But damn it, this story just hits too close to home. And it probably makes it impossible for me to give this novel its due.
This is a shame, because I was really looking forward to this novel. I’ve read all of Dave Eggers’s books and I consider each one an event worth celebrating. Indeed, Eggers is one of the few people in American letters who I refuse to have reservations about (see also: George Saunders). But even trying to bracket my biases here (both positive and negative), I just don’t think Hologram is a good novel.
Here’s some plot summary. Alan Clay is not (as I schematized above) a graduate student, but rather a salesman/consultant. After a career spent facilitating the destruction of American manufacturing (his union-busting helped to kill Schwinn–really), Alan finds himself in debt and unable to pay his daughter’s college tuition. We meet him in Saudi Arabia where he is working on contract for Reliant. His job: to convince King Abdullah to choose Reliant to provide the IT infrastructure for Abdullah’s vanity development, King Abdullah Economic City. If Alan succeeds, he’ll receive a percentage of the profits–enough to pay his debts and his daughter’s tuition. If he fails, nothing. So Alan and his team of young engineers spend days in a tent on a construction site in the middle of the dessert, waiting for the arrival of the King. The problem is that no one knows when–or if–King Abdullah will arrive. There are some additional complications: a golf ball-sized growth on Alan’s neck, a lonely Danish consultant with bootleg moonshine, a wolf-hunting party in the mountains. But the driving question of the novel is whether Abdullah is coming and, if he does, whether Alan can sell. And does he? Don’t worry, I will tiptoe around spoilers here–if there is such a thing as a spoiler for a novel that hinges on the arrival of an absent character and that begins with an epigraph from Waiting for Godot.
Despite the fact that we spend most of our time with Alan in hotels and office parks that could as easily be in Phoenix as in Jeddah, there are reasons for setting this story in Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom is important here because it allows Eggers to make two points repeatedly. The first is that there is significant tension in Saudi society between hard-line Islamism and Western-style capitalist individualism. Eggers depicts a society in which what is forbidden in public (uncovered women, alcohol, adultery) is tacitly condoned in private–as long as you don’t get caught. This is a society that looks the other way as drunken young men race their cars in the desert (any resulting fatalities go unreported). Indeed, sometimes the government itself encourages the double standard: enforcing clothing rules for women while advertising condos in King Abdullah Economic City with pictures of women in Western garb. Eggers’s book returns to these stories again and again. He clearly finds them fascinating, but I don’t. I really don’t understand the American obsession with unveiling (pun intended) the contradictions and hypocrisy of strict Islamist societies. And I’m not sure why Eggers is so keen to place his novel in such a questionable genealogy–one that includes, for god’s sake, Sex and the City 2.
The second point that Saudi Arabia allows Eggers to make (and he returns to this trope again and again) is that the United States is no longer respected by the world. The US is a joke and the only people who don’t know this are Americans themselves. Indeed, in this novel, even the corporations that now run the US (and which the US more or less exists to prop up)–corporations like Reliant–are not taken particularly seriously by the rest of the world. It is no accident that Alan and his team from Reliant are assigned by the Saudis to a tent with intermittent air-conditioning and weak wireless signal. Again, this observation about America’s place in the international imagination seems to fascinate Eggers to no end. And again, this strikes me as a banal realization (although it is one that most Americans probably have not made, considering that we only tend to think of the rest of the civilized world as a model for how not to live). Oh, and by the way, guess which country swoops in at the end of the novel to compete with Reliant (hint: Peter Kiernan would not approve).
As you have probably realized by now, this novel is a novel about decline–in as many senses as Eggers can pack into 300 pages. There is economic and political decline: the union-busting, the flight of manufacturing to the Third World, the death of the US space program. There is moral decline: Eggers retells a story of emergency crews who watch a man commit suicide by hypothermia because they lack the insurance to go into the freezing water to rescue him–a story “ripped from the headlines.” But the political, economic, and moral decline mirror Alan’s personal decline: his questionable health, his divorce, his inability to respond physically when he does (finally) find himself attracted to someone. There is nothing but failure here and (despite several feints in that direction) no redemption.
So how can one face so much failure? Alan, throughout the novel, does face it and remains–with occasional moments of doubt–stupidly, foolishly optimistic. And how can one read about so much failure? Some reviews have found Alan’s resilience to be appealing. I find it grotesque. Much like Alan’s dad, who can barely stand to listen when Alan calls him from Saudi Arabia to brag about the project, I can’t ignore Alan’s failures and the failures of American life that Alan tries to paper over. In a recent essay on Edith Wharton, Jonathan Franzen notes that the novel is designed to make you root for the main character to get what she wants–regardless of whether you like her or not. And indeed, this novel is no different: I really want Alan to get what he wants. But, like his dad, I really don’t want to pay attention to him while he pursues it.
Part of the problem with this novel, for me, is style. Eggers’s style has changed over the years and the exuberance of his early work is gone. In this novel, there is no palpable delight in language and its possibilities. I miss the voice of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and You Shall Know Our Velocity!. Here are the first two sentences of Velocity!:
Everything within takes place after Jack died and before my mom and I drowned in a burning ferry in the cool tannin-tinted Guaviare river, in east-central Colombia, with forty-two locals we hadn’t yet met. It was a clear and eyeblue day, that day, as was the first day of this story, a few years ago in January, on Chicago’s North Side, in the opulent shadow of Wrigley and with the wind coming low and searching off the jagged half-frozen lake.
And here are the first three sentences of Hologram:
Alan Clay woke up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It was May 30, 2010. He had spent two days on planes to get there.
Now I have nothing against the straightforward communication of basic information (like, say, dates) in a novel. And there is a simplicity to short declarative sentences that can be appealing. But I will always prefer the kinds of sentences in the former example, sentences that seem to revel in what language can do (and in those two sentences alone we get rhyme, flocks of commas, “eyeblue”–to say nothing of the suggestion of language itself speaking after the death of the speaker). Sadly, there are no traces in Hologram of Eggers’s earlier linguistic inventiveness or lyricism and this makes an already grim story even more of a slog.
And that’s what this book felt like for me: a slog. The narrative is a long series of failures, poor decisions, banal observations, disappointments, missed opportunities, cultural clichés, and sad stories. At a certain point (right around Alan’s attempt at self-surgery), I found myself increasingly skeptical about whether all of this was going to add up to anything–whether any of it was going to matter in the end. The answer is that none of it does. Now, I don’t necessarily need redemption or salvation or closure at the end of a novel (although I won’t turn those down), but I do need to feel like a novel has told me something new or interesting or worthwhile. I want a good novel to change me. And alas, I’m not even a slightly different person after reading A Hologram for the King.