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One hundred years from now, when scholars comb the (no doubt digital) stacks building a literary canon of the Great Global Recession of 2008, they’ll undoubtedly come across Dave Eggers’ new novel, A Hologram for the King. Their biggest concern won’t be style so much as substance.
Does this 300-plus page novel accurately capture the pathos of what it was like to live during such a moment in history? Does it accurately capture the desperation of the employed and unemployed masses?
From a reader in 2012 to his more enlightened successors a century later, the answer is most certainly yes. Writing in a more stripped down style than ever before, Eggers has crafted a novel that’s both intensely readable and possessed with a palpable melancholy about days long gone. It’s a sadness worsened by the fact that a better future, with better times, may never arrive.
Which is no surprise considering the novel takes as its epigraph a passage from Samuel Beckett’s classic play of existential doom, “Waiting for Godot.” In fact, substitute Godot with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and you’ve got a pretty solid idea of where A Hologram for the King and its protagonist, American salesman Alan Clay, are headed.
At the start, our economic Everyman finds himself wandering through the King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC, pronounced “cake” as a friendly taxi driver informs us) — the Saudi monarch’s massive and massively unfinished urban project. The excess of this city in the desert, which from the ground resembles to Clay a deserted moon base, is a powerful backdrop against which to set our hero’s mission: to present to King Abdullah a holographic conferencing system whose purchase would inevitably rescue Clay from the financial doldrums of bankruptcy and college tuition for his daughter, as well as the failure of finding himself an old-fashioned salesman in a brave new world.
As you probably guessed, the King always pushes back his appointment with Clay and his team. And so Clay is left to fend for himself in a foreign country, where he befriends the locals and later tests their friendship, probes a mysterious growth on the back of his neck (in perhaps a too-obvious metaphor for Clay’s emotional malaise), pines for the love of a beguiling female Saudi doctor, drafts introspective letters to his daughter back in America, drinks bootlegged moonshine in his hotel room, and continues to wait and wait for the King.
As a writer, Eggers is a humanitarian in the literal sense, devoting much of his recent work to explaining and exposing social and political ills. He did it for Darfur and the Sudanese civil war in his 2006 novel, What is the What, and for Hurricane Katrina and the nightmare of post-9/11 bureaucracy in 2009’s Zeitoun. So it’s no surprise that what Eggers excels at the most in his new novel: capturing the way real lives are affected by the global recession.
A former employee of Schwinn, Clay finds himself the victim of the same job outsourcing he once was paid to promote. He’s an idealist; someone who built a career on the tried and true ethics of door-to-door salesmanship. But he’s continually disappointed. And so are we. It’s painful to read about this good old businessman and bicycle aficionado wandering aimlessly like one of the world’s last dinosaurs through a graveyard of bones. As Clay laments at one point, “How could he have predicted the world losing interest in people like him?”
This pain is a testament to how expertly Eggers can craft a character; one on whose shoulders rests all the hopes, concerns and fears of an entire generation for whom hard work and dedication can’t beat back the onslaught of outsourcing, cost-cutting, union-busting and downsizing. As we learn from the traumatic death of one of Clay’s friends, real human lives — not just bank accounts — are at stake.
According to A Hologram for the King, the solution to our troubles lies less in a grand revolution and more in a return to transcendental ways of approaching the world; an economic diet that’s less Karl Marx and more Walt Whitman. The moments in this novel which resonate most are those when Clay seems most at peace: out on the land, working in the dirt, building with bare hands and simple tools.
And even if that’s too trite and soft a moral for you, there’s no denying the fact that A Hologram for the King is an accurate window on our new economic reality — one through which we, and future generations, can see and engage with the cold truths about the way we live and make money now.