A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers

Published by McSweeney’s, June 2012

October 30th, 2012

Literary juggernaut Dave Eggers has transformed the American publishing world since he burst onto the scene with his groundbreaking memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius in 2000 which through its self-referentiality and stylistic innovations became a benchmark for postmodern pastiche. He has published six books since, while acting as the founder and editor of McSweeney’s, one of the most influential independent publishing houses in the United States. Pretty much anything that he is involved with is worth a look, and we were excited to pick up his latest novel – A Hologram for the King – as soon as it came out this summer. There are few voices in American literature that are as distinct and compelling as Eggers’; his books all bear his signature literary trickery and unconventional approach to storytelling. At a mere 328-pages, A Hologram for the King feels like a bit of a departure for Eggers, a pared-down, condensed narrative that lacks the verbosity and explicit authorial identity that we’ve come to expect from his works. Nonetheless it is just as immensely readable as his previous efforts – we ploughed through it in just two sittings, unable to put it down – and this understated approach is perfectly suited to convey Eggers’ hauntingly sad story of Alan Clay.

While the majority of the narrative transpires in Saudi Arabia, Hologram is a melancholic tale of the downside of the American dream, of a man who has found his skills and himself entirely obsolete in a rapidly changing global economy. Clay, a victim of both recession-era downsizing and an economic climate where his abilities are no longer valued, heads to the Middle East in a desperate attempt to reinvent himself and salvage both his financial solvency and his deteriorating personal relationships. Hoping to reclaim some semblance of his identity, Clay procures a contract to pitch an IT platform, which includes, as the book’s title suggests, a system of holograms, to King Abdullah for a new economic development outside of the port city of Jeddah. When the King fails to show up for their initial meeting and for the number that follow, Clay finds himself languishing in the desert city, becoming enmeshed in a number of misadventures that seem to confirm his impotency and the absence of a place for someone like him in the 21st century. All of his interactions – with the young Americans on his team, with his Saudi driver, with the various women he becomes involved with – only confirm his perpetual outsider status.

The novel is essentially a focused character study and Eggers imbues his protagonist with equal parts American ignorant bravado and deep, troubling sadness and regret that make it difficult for the reader to determine how to feel about Clay. He is a character of tremendous complexity, one that is easy to despise and pity almost simultaneously. Yet even when his actions are utterly confounding, Eggers reveals a vulnerability in this very flawed character that makes him difficult to hate. Eggers’ evocative depictions of Clay’s surroundings – from the soulless Hilton hotel to the half-completed, stagnant King Abdullah Economic City – are among the best moments in the book as the author transports us to these distant locales where the vastness and the cultural murkiness symbolize Clay’s own lack of direction and befuddled state.

At times we found the politics of the novel a tad too heavy-handed – Eggers details again and again Clay’s futility in the new economy when a single reference would have sufficed. Yet this is an important work, one that is very much of this time and place, a meditation on the status of America in an increasingly global culture, and it will likely hold up as an important portrayal of the aftermath of the global recession. At its heart A Hologram for a King is a provocative and disheartening depiction of the American identity in a world where its role is no longer clearly defined.

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