A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (2012)
By Sherry Evans, Portsmouth Public Library
Jeddeh, Saudi Arabia, 2010
Alan Clay has just travelled from his home in Boston to meet King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and convince him, through a high tech presentation, that he should purchase Reliant’s holographic software for the planned King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC). Just as Las Vegas was a vast expanse on the American desert before mega-money was invested in it, so is this area in the Arabian Desert. If this deal goes through Alan and Reliant will be mega-rich.
Alan is a dreamer, a visionary, formerly an astute businessman, who has fallen on hard economic and personal times. He owes thousands of dollars to friends, business associates and banks. If this deal doesn’t go through, well….Alan doesn’t want to think about that. Such is Alan’s downfall that holographic images of Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman might dance in your head. Thankfully, A Hologram for the King is not that dark.
He has a college-age daughter, Kit, who cannot go back to college due to Alan’s debt, an ex-wife to whom he owes half the proceeds of their former home and Alan has virtually no income. Since he lost his ‘big’ job he has done a dwindling amount of consulting work. Truly, he is banking everything on this deal with the King.
He says of himself,
“His decisions had been short-sighted. The decisions of his peers had been short-sighted. These decisions had been foolish and expedient.”
In A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers offers up a cautionary tale for our times. What happens when you reach too high, when you borrow too much, when you live above your means, when you promise too much or when greed rules your life? Many greedy businessmen are depicted in the news as thoroughly unlikeable. We hear of how much money they have craftily stolen from unsuspecting investors. How, for them, there is never enough. Are they psychopaths? Would we recognize one if we passed him on the street?
More like an everyman, Alan Clay is not a psychopath. We do not detest him. We can understand that he is driven, a workaholic perhaps, who thinks that just over there is the next best thing. And if he can get in on the ‘ground floor’, or find the right investors or be in the right place at the right time, network with the right connections, then he will make his fortune and be set for life.
“This Abdullah deal seemed like a given. No one could compete with Reliant’s size, and now they had a goddamned hologram. Alan would close this up, get his cut, pay back everyone in Boston, then get going. Open a small factory, start with a thousand bikes a year, then ramp up from there. Pay Kit’s tuition with pocket change. Send away the realtors, pay what’s left on his house, stride the world, a colossus….”
At 54, Alan is embarrassed to be in this position. He used to be a king himself, king of Schwinn bicycles. Those were glorious, successful times. He made the business; he grew the business and then he destroyed it by taking manufacturing overseas. This bad decision will haunt him the rest of his days.
Alan is in Saudi Arabia with three bright tech-savvy young people. Alan is sales; Brad, Cayley and Rachel, are the tech team. Lots of surprises await them. For instance, the city, as depicted on the internet and in brochures, is not really built. From the Jeddeh Hilton they must take a 20 minute shuttle to get to the one office building in KAEC that exists. Once past the building the road abruptly ends, literally a road to nowhere. They are shown to a tent, known as the ‘Presentation Tent’ – no amenities, no wifi, no food and no AC – where they wait day after day for the King. Days turn to weeks and still they wait.
As a person might meander, lost in the desert, without food and water, so does Alan wander, make wrong turns and fall on his face. He’s a survivor, though, and despite his recent track record, a very good salesman. He needs a chance. He needs the King to come.
Egger’s narrative style is sparkling, the inner dialogue of his characters frank and thoughtful. He respects his characters and despite their shortcomings, he does want them to survive. But he has a story to tell and he lets his characters have free reign to tell it. They make mistakes, they show us their raw, fragile side, and they fall, stumble and then recover.
In the most beautiful, poignant chapter in the book, Alan spends a day with the beautiful doctor, Zahra Hakem. Despite their differences and awkwardness (she removed a benign growth from his neck) they connect on a deeply emotional level.
He glanced outside, at the sun-soaked sky, at the sea unknowable, and in their vastness he found strength. A million dead in that water, billions living under that sun, that sun a hard white light among billions more like it, and thus all of this was not so important, and thus not so difficult. No one was watching, and no one outside of he and Zahra cared about what would happen in this room – such strength born of insignificance! – so he might as well do as he wished, which was to kiss her.
Does Alan meet the King? Does his team get to give their presentation? Do they close the deal? Alan does strike a deal but not the expected one.
Novelist, the online reader’s advisory database, says. “Dave Eggers is a jack of all trades in the literary world. He is an editor and a publisher; he writes nonfiction, short stories, and novels; he works in genres from Humor to Memoir to Literary Fiction. It is difficult to make generalizations about the unpredictable Eggers, who can glide from silly to ironic to tragic in one book. It is safe to say, however, Eggers reliably delivers pathos and passion, whether his subject is serious, fanciful, or somewhere in between. Start with: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Nonfiction); What Is the What (Fiction).”
Dave Eggers is the bestselling author of Zeitoun, winner of the American Book Award and Dayton Literary Prize. His novel What is the What was a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award and won France’s Prix Medici.
In The Circle (2013), Eggers latest novel, the New York Times says, “Big Brother isn’t the government: it’s a Google-like, Facebook-like tech behemoth, called the Circle, that has a billion-odd users, controls 90 percent of the world’s searches and aspires to record and quantify everything that’s happening to everybody, everywhere in the world.” I cannot wait to read it!