A Hologram for the King By Dave Eggers McSweeney's Books. 317 pp. $25
Reviewed by Steven Rea
The nuclear family exploded long ago. The IOUs are stacked high. Foreclosure looks inevitable. He can't pay his daughter's college tuition — he's going to have to tell her she can't return for another semester — and every scheme to right the ship has turned wrong.
In Dave Eggers' deft and darkly comic A Hologram for the King, Alan Clay, a 54-year-old businessman, is staring into the abyss. But there's hope: the Saudi king is building a shining new city on the Red Sea, and Alan, a consultant with an outfit bidding to provide the telecommunications systems for the King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC, pronounced cake, as in let them eat some), is heading a team of twentysomething techies set to make their presentation in a big tent an hour north of Jeddah. He has an in — a past business partnership with the king's nephew — and Alan's company, Reliant, represents the latest and smartest in American know-how. They can't miss.
And so Alan finds himself in a half-completed grid of towering glass and steel, a metropolis in the making, plopped down on the edge of the desert facing a vast expanse of water, where Pakistani and Filipino construction workers are busy building condos for affluent internationals, glimmering spaces where Wolfgang Pucks and Pizzaria Unos will go. And where Alan and his gang — Brad, Cayley, Rachel, a trio of laptop jockeys young enough to be his kids — wait for the king.
And wait. And wait. The epigram at the front of Eggers' novel reads, "It is not every day that we are needed." That's Samuel Beckett, from Waiting for Godot. And as Alan tries to ascertain when the king will drop in, he has time on his hands — time to ponder his fate, the mistakes he has made, the missteps in business, in love, the haunting memory of a neighbor who walked into a lake, fully clothed, and drowned.
As straight-ahead a piece of writing as Eggers' 2000 debut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was epically labyrinthine, A Hologram for the King is not only a portrait of a man in midlife trying desperately to salvage his future. The book is emblematic of what Eggers sees as wrong in America today: the collapse of homegrown industry, the outsourcing of labor, a loss of confidence, soured ideals. "Americans are born knowing everything and nothing," Alan thinks to himself, wondering what those three Reliant kids must think of him as they drum their digits, check their smartphones. "Born moving forward, quickly, or thinking they are."
But A Hologram for the King isn't a bummer — or if it is, it's a bummer beautifully enlivened by oddball encounters and oddball characters, by stranger-in-a-strange-land episodes: a road trip with Yousef, his chauffeur and friend, that ends with a dreamlike expedition to hunt down a wolf; a surgery to remove a growth on Alan's back that leads to a potentially romantic interlude with his doctor; a bacchanalian fete at the Danish embassy, and Alan's cruise down KAEC's newly engineered system of canals — in a big yacht, with Alan behind the captain's wheel.
Does King Abdullah ever show? Does Reliant get the contract? Is Alan saved from financial ruin? Does he buy a condo and move to Saudi Arabia?
Propelled by those questions, and others, A Hologram for the King moves forward — a momentum of melancholy and possibility, driven by the meditations and memories of its once-noble American salesman hero.