La­ment for an Amer­i­can age

A Holo­gram for the King

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Pierce Peter Pierce

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.’’

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