When Dave Eggers first burst into the literary world from California by way of Lake Forest, it was on the back of one of the first self-described pseudo-memoirs, his self-deprecating and best-selling novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. This was before the memoir shit hit the fan with Oprah’s outing of James Frey for his substantially fictive “memoir” A Million Little Pieces.
Eggers was way out in front when he openly tagged his first novel’s cover with the caveat “Based on a true story.” His refreshingly stylized blend of the facts of his parents’ early deaths and his narrative dialogue about raising his brother Toph made the question of his book’s “authenticity” moot. It was a great book no matter how it was labeled. (Oddly enough, it was a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in the “General Non-Fiction” category. Go figure. The award committee didn’t know what to make of it either.).
Eggers has successfully stayed out in front with his subsequent books. He wrote a “traditional” novel (again oddly titled, You Shall Know Our Velocity) and short stories (How We Are Hungry), a novel masquerading as an autobiography (What is the What), and a “non-fiction” account of a displaced Syrian caught in New Orleans during Katrina (Zeitoun) that reads like fiction.
A Busy Guy
Eggers is a busy guy. At the same time, he founded one of the most independent and eclectic of the remaining independent publishers. His McSweeney’s books are famously well-made, creatively-designed tributes to the art of the book––they may single-handedly save the paper book from the eBook juggernaut––and feature the cutting-edge work of writers who might get overlooked by the big corporate, bottom-line driven publishers.
If that were not enough, the generous, hands-on Eggers also has established “826 Valencia,” a foundation dedicated to encouraging reading and writing for public school kids aged 6-18, which he occasionally teaches himself. The guy is a one-man cultural institution for which he has been recognized not only with various book awards, but also with appearances on TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), an Utne Reader Visionary Award, and an honorary Doctor of Letters from Brown University.
At Heart, A Writer
The amazing thing is that Eggers can really write too. “Heartbreaking” might indeed also be the right word to describe his new novel, A Hologram for the King, in which he collects themes and personalities from his previous books to create a powerful overview of the world as it is today.
Throughout his work he addresses the plight of children without––or in conflict with––parents, displaced people adrift in foreign environments, and worlds where the old rules don’t apply. In his new novel he sympathetically considers all three in the context of a sales trip to Saudi Arabia.
The sad but determined protagonist Alan Clay is a mid-fifties divorcee with financial problems. Once a rising star with Schwinn, Clay not only put a bike in every American garage but also joined top management in deciding to chase cheap labor from Illinois to the American South to Asia and ultimately into bankruptcy.
He then had a brief run selling Huffy bikes, put together an unfunded business plan to manufacture and sell his own bike design, and finally descended the typical tailing arc of no-longer-useful management into self-employed consulting––only to watch his income fall along with an economy that forces him to put his house on the market to cover an underwater mortgage.
While his ex-wife Ruby badgers him for her piece of the long gone equity in the house, he unloads half his furniture on his former lawn man Chuy, and gives the rest to his college-aged daughter Kit teetering on the edge of leaving school because he can’t afford her tuition. Alan then turns his house over to a real estate “stager” hired to make the house more appealing. The stager’s job is to “brighten the darkness you have brought into it with your human mess. Then until it’s sold, you live in a version of your house, a better version.”
A go along to get along guy, Alan, doesn’t whine or join the political rancor demanding accountability and punishment for the villains who have driven home values underwater. Instead, the ever upbeat salesman secures an assignment with Reliant, a global tech company, to try to leverage his college class acquaintance with the King of Saudi Arabia’s nephew into a lucrative contract to provide city-wide hologram communication for King Abdullah’s Economic City (KAEC), a barely started modern metropolis on the shores of the Red Sea outside Jeddah.
Reliant sends him over with three young techies who will build the actual presentation prototype. They accept him begrudgingly, only because he is some sort of anachronistic mouthpiece hired by headquarters. For Alan, though, this is his one chance to “abandon all debts, send Kit money somehow, and leave the crushing vise of his life in America behind.
“He had done fifty-four years of it. Wasn’t that enough? But no. He was more than that…Some days he could encompass the world…see the landscape of his life and future for what it was: mappable, traversable, achievable,” Eggers writes.
Alone and Broke in a Far Off Oasis
As the novel opens, we find Alan alone, broke, and broken-down as he flies into a strange new culture, but still carrying his good old American optimism.
On the first leg of his trip from Boston to London, he finds himself sitting next to a retired businessman “drinking gin and tonics and monologuing.” The businessman is on his way to live in Nice and is Eggers’ voice of all those Americans who have given up. “It was good for a while, right? Now we had to be ready to join western Europe in an era of tourism and shopkeeping,” he tells Alan. “We’ve become a nation of indoor cats…of doubters, worriers, overthinkers…[not] the kind of Americans who settled this country…Back then, you buried your dead and kept moving.”
But Alan won’t let this man who is “drunk, maybe unhinged too” drag him down in his malaise. He savors the potential of a new place, a big sale, all his troubles behind him.
Life of a Salesman
Although Eggers sets up his novel with echoes of Arthur Miller’s tired salesman Willy Loman, once Alan lands in Jeddah, the story takes a turn toward Kafka and Beckett (from whom the book takes it’s epigraph: “It is not every day that we are needed”).
When he misses the official van to KAEC after a jet-lagged fitful sleep, he finds himself at the mercy of the hotel’s concierge. The concierge hooks him up with Yousef, a local driver wearing Oakley’s and driving a “puddle-brown” old Chevy Caprice with Fleetwood Mac playing through an old iPod. It turns out Yousef studied for a year in Alabama. His English spills forth in a southern accent, and he happily practices all the way to the city that isn’t.
A salesman’s lot is mostly waiting. In office lobbies, Pancake Houses, airports, wherever. But Eggers takes waiting to the Godot level. In the King Abdulah Economic City, Alan finds a few well-planned but unpaved boulevards, a partially finished high rise condo tower on the sea, a sleek black box office building, and a large white tent – the latter empty but for his team of techies complaining about no air-conditioning and no internet connection. What’s worse, Alan finds that there is no schedule for the King’s arrival to hear his pitch. So the Reliant team naps and waits…for weeks.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Abdulah’s Court
With this carefully constructed “waiting” scenario, Eggers is free to introduce several amusing but telling picaresque episodes reminiscent of Twain’s Connecticut Yankee and Dafoe’s Gulliver.
As the days pass, Alan wanders into several adventures as he tries to find someone to nail down the specific day of his team’s proposal. He sneaks into the office building and interrogates a Dutch consultant Hanne to try to discover the King’s plans. She is no help saying “I’m sure your people know more than I do. I’m just a consultant. I do payroll.” (Alan’s retired Union man father has the last word on consultants: “They’re paid obscenely to misread spreadsheets.”)
But Hanne is also a sexy road warrior who can get him local moonshine (“looking like water and tasting like broken machinery”) and cigarettes and an invitation to an embassy party full of bad music, drunk Saudis, and a “fat Canadian dance phenom.”
One day Alan sneaks into the condo building’s only finished floor where he is stunned by the opulent units and meets a drinking, smoking Saudi condo salesman who gets him almost drunk enough to buy one. Instead Alan is soon putting his New England boating skills to use driving the salesman’s brand new yacht down the canal. The notoriously strict legal abstinence rules of Saudi Arabia apparently don’t apply to everyone…as is pretty much the case in every country.
With all the waiting, Alan also spends a lot of time with Yousef who is having girlfriend troubles. Alan joins Yousef on a trip to his sandal-selling father’s home village several hours away, “a ludicrous place to live for a day or two, let alone for centuries.”
There, a recent sighting of a wolf among a neighbor’s sheep sends Alan and Yousef’s friends off into the night to shoot the wolf. His marksmanship, learned on childhood hunting trips with his father, makes him the top gun of the crowd…until in the darkness he shoots at a small boy near the sheep pen who he mistakenly thinks is a wolf. Yousef, disappointed in Alan’s aggression, sends him back to Jeddah.
Puncturing The Wound
The waiting, the bureaucracy, and the empty city of the future take their toll on Alan, and he develops a nasty cyst on the back of his neck. Convinced it is some sort of cancer that is slowly sapping his energy, he makes a drunken attempt to puncture it with a pocketknife in the loneliness of his hotel room.
Unsuccessful, he finally finds a hospital where a team of international surgeons, led surprisingly by a beautiful Saudi woman Dr. Hakem, removes it. In and out of a fog, he has visions of dying like his mother who stroked out at sixty causing a fatal car accident – visions he imagines are sending him a message: “In death, you can hope for dignity but should expect disarray.”
Despite his optimism and good intentions, Alan gradually finds himself cut off from these local acquaintances as well as his own team. Alone with the rotgut booze, he writes unsent letters to his daughter explaining his life and trying to offer her encouragement for a future beyond her parents’ divorce. In these letters Eggers finds a way to balance the frustrations of his unwilling expatriate with the kind and hopeful dreams of a father.
Eggers’ episodic storytelling and clever scene construction flow seamlessly and entertainingly toward the big meeting with the King. When the king finally does appear––and the Reliant tech team demonstrates a dramatic international hologrammatic conference call––Abdullah abruptly leaves for a lavish booze and food spread with the Chinese competitors. Alan never even gets to mention his acquaintance with the King’s nephew.
Eggers’ A Hologram for the King is not just the story of a hopeless world on the skids. Yes, it is a novel of an American optimist beat up by circumstances. Alan is thrust into a world where nothing is predictable, where strict religious laws are openly violated, where language and custom commingle in a cosmopolitan mash-up of the crumbling ruins of the past and the half-built fantasies of the future, and where the best innovative technologies lose out to the lure of booze and low costs.
But the sadness underlying his story is overcome by the persistent hope and resolve of his hero – and Alan is a hero. He doesn’t tuck in his tail and go home defeated when the sale doesn’t happen. He decides to remain in Saudi Arabia, because “he couldn’t go home yet, not empty handed like this. So he would stay. He had to. Otherwise who would be here when the King came again?”
Wasn’t it Milton who first reminded us of this power of resilience? “They also serve who only stand and wait.”