Lament for an American age
A Hologram for the King
By Dave Eggers Hamish Hamilton, 315pp, $29.99
PUBLISHER, philanthropist and author in numerous modes, Dave Eggers first won notice with his memoir of his parents’ deaths from cancer, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Then he won prizes for a work of nonfiction with a shorter, more enigmatic title, Zeitoun. This was his account of the ill-rewarded Syrian-American hero of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (Zeitoun has recently found himself back in jail, for conspiring to murder his wife.) In both of these works there was the stuff of fiction, and indeed the energetic and intelligent Eggers is also a novelist. A Hologram for the King is his fourth, and while its parable of the industrial decline of the US is perceptive and melancholy, one still feels that fiction is not the form in which Eggers fully trusts his instincts.
The novel begins in the Jeddah Hilton, Saudi Arabia, on May 30, 2010. Fifty-fouryear-old Alan Clay, ‘‘ as intriguing to corporate America as an airplane built from mud’’, ‘‘ virtually broke, nearly unemployed, the proprietor of a one-man consulting firm run out of his home office’’, is there on his last chance. Because of a possible contact, based on an encounter that he had back in the mid1990s with a minor Saudi royal, the king’s nephew, Clay has been hired by the Reliant Company to sell a hologram to King Abdullah. This will take him to the presentation site in a barely begun dream metropolis in the desert, the King Abdullah Economic City. There he and his youthful, cheery and as yet undamaged assistants will spend their time waiting for the king.
As the echo of Genesis in his surname reminds us, Clay is an American Everyman, one whose plight is representative of this dispiriting, latest chapter in the national story. His house has long and fruitlessly been on the market. He cannot afford the next term of his daughter’s tuition at an expensive college. He is anxious about a mysterious and possibly malignant lump on his spine. His rancorous exwife, Ruby, has tunnelled through his emotional and financial resources. Hopes of being the inventor of a new bicycle have died, as has the bicycle company, Schwinn, for which he long worked: ‘‘ people were done with manufacturing on American soil’’. From his farmhouse in New Hampshire, Clay’s father lectures him about Asia: ‘‘ they’re making actual things over there, and we’re making websites and holograms’’.
Eggers’s anatomy of America sometimes feels like Richard Ford’s Bascombe trilogy in a minor key. Whereas Ford’s acrid commentary is subsumed within the personal misadventures of his hero, Eggers’s has a more documentary bent. His indictment is blunt but sorrowful: ‘‘ now we had to be ready to join Western Europe in an era of tourism and shopkeeping’’. Americans — once a nation of salesmen (Arthur Miller’s Willie Loman is echoed in Alan Clay) — ‘‘ are born knowing everything and nothing’’.
Yet Clay’s still alert gaze is turned as well on his Saudi hosts. His plain, undemonstrative, occasionally droll prose proves to be an apt vehicle for remarking the incongruities of a kingdom where, for instance, ‘‘ there are apparently no Saudis working at this Saudi hotel’’; further, ‘‘ we don’t have unions here. We have Filipinos.’’
The circumstances in which Clay finds himself are surreal, nightmarish. They are not overwhelming only, perhaps, because of the limits of his imagination.
Travelling to KAEC (pronounced cake), ‘‘ the road was new, but it cut through absolutely nothing’’. His contacts there are always, regrettably, somewhere else. He pilots a luxury vessel down a canal on whose banks none of the promised buildings has been erected; wanders through ‘‘ mounds of dust and the empty foundations of buildings’’. His driver, Yousef, although ‘‘ the only sane man in a thousand miles’’, takes Clay on a wolf hunt in the mountains of central Saudi Arabia. Behind Western embassy doors, bootleg liquor flows and guests dive for pills in the pool. Given the bizarre, more shocking because taken for granted, incidents that Eggers has deployed, his narration is almost too restrained.
Eggers structures the novel with artful repetitions: the trek from Jeddah to the tent in the city in the desert, the poignant and thoughtful letters that Clay writes but does not send to his daughter, flashbacks to his marriage and — a risk that comes off — a series of very funny jokes. There are a couple of aquatic sexual episodes that are not so successfully managed, by the author or his hero.
The ending is bleak, rather a vanishing than more waiting. The note of threnody, lament for a passing American age as well as one small and solitary life within it, sounds throughout this finely executed novel. Of Clay and the female Saudi surgeon with whom he is improbably connected, we read: ‘‘ They were so in love with the world, and disappointed in every aspect of it.’’