Dave Eggers - A Hologram for the King

Rating 6.7

This is a strange beast of a novel about an impotent middle-aged American man, Alan Clay, engulfed in the quite predictable twists and turns of the global economy.

Before dealing with impotence and middle life crisis, Mr. Clay used to be a self made man building up an entrepreneurial career in the manufacturing sector.

Now, the problem with Alan was chiefly a philosophical one: he thought that quality would have always won over quantity. Which was wishful thinking in the 1980s and 1990s and daydreaming in the noughties.
Having found his niche market, bicycles, Alan firmly and strangely believed that he could keep the production in the US despite the rise of cheap manufacturing labour abroad - in China, to be precise.

In Mr. Clay's myopic view, purchasing a sturdy, durable and reliable bike was what the American buyers aimed at. An American-made jewel of a bicycle that should and might have made its owners proud to ride it and to show its chromes around. A sort of family heirloom of a bike. A bike made of the same substance of dreams.

Now, all of this didn't make much sense in the real world and, in fact, doesn't stand a chance against mighty China and the Far East.
(Oddly, Eggers seems to ignore that the most of the world's biggest bike manufacturers such as Giant, Merida and Ideal Bike are actually Taiwanese).

Thus, when his dreams to keep the bicycle production line in the US are crushed and the company he works for has to shut down, Alan tries to fight back but in his own over-optimistic fashion. And quality and shiny chromes cannot save him.

Needless to say, that all his following start-ups fail one after another. Banks refuse to give him any more loans. His creditors start losing their patience. Alan puts his house on sale and wait for opportunities. 

Which is precisely why he finds himself stuck in a tent in the Saudi desert in this novel.

For the opportunity has come.
Due to a lucky coincidence (and a dubious acquaintance), Alan has been sent to the Saudi Kingdom by an American IT company as the member of a team which is trying to get a lucrative contract from no one else than King Abdullah.

And selling a futuristic communication system involving holograms to King Abdullah Economic City - the (sandy) apple of the eye of the sovereign - is what Alan Clay wants. He needs his commission to restart all over and pay a good college for his daughter.

That Alan doesn't know (and doesn't care) a fig about holograms is not the point.
He's the senior member of the American expedition. He's supposed to be the problem solver. He should know how to talk business. 

Unfortunately, the whole enterprise turns out to be a game of endurance. Nobody shows up in the tent to meet Alan and his team and the Americans are left alone awaiting King Abdullah or one of his dignitaries to show up. Just imagine Waiting for Godot by Beckett set in The Desert of the Tartars by Buzzati to get a snapshot of the whole situation.

And a hologram, a mirage, a Fata Morgana is what King Abdullah Economic City is. Will the King pop up? Will Alan Clay come back home with his money? And does that really matter?

After all, Alan does find a way to kill his time by making buddies in Jeddah.
The young chatterbox of a chaffeur driving him around and taking him to his family's secluded palace for hunting wolves down.
The nymphomaniac divorced Danish woman who tries to arouse Alan sexually to win over her boredom and loneliness.
The mysterious and fascinating Saudi lady surgeon who shows the hidden pleasures of snorkelling to the American visitor.

All supporting actors and actresses who come and go with the mere purpose to make Alan's (and the reader's) wait more bearable. Well, to some extent.

This is a novel about too many things at the same time. Eggers doesn't manage to keep up the good work he did in his former non fiction books and it's hard to see where he tries to take Alan and us at the end.
A Hologram for the King may lack a clear purpose and is certainly written in a somehow artificial oversimplified style, but it has an exotic taste and a sorrowful meaning:
no matter what you do and where you go, outsourcing always gets the last word.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a fan of Dave Eggers. Not one book of his is like the other, but they are all fantastic. He shows such range. This one was fantastic - sad, thought provoking. Stays with you. A piece of the times we live in.