Review of A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers
While some authors write the same book over and over, Dave Eggers manages to reinvent his authorial voice every time he puts a new book on the shelf. He tackled the auto-biographical format in his first book The Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, imaginary journalism in What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (2006), and social issues in Zeitoun (2009).
His latest work is the novel A Hologram for the King. The protagonist is Alan Clay, a fifty-something divorced father, who is up to his eyeballs in debt, barely has a job, and who might, or might not, have something lethal growing on the back of his neck. In what seems to Alan to be his last chance to stave off the black hole swallowing his life, he has signed on with an IT company trying to sell technology to the king of Saudi Arabia.
The story opens shortly after Alan arrives in Jeddah, for what he hopes will be a successful presentation to the king, resulting in a major life turn-around. While waiting for the king to arrive over the course of a few weeks, Alan vacillates between anxiety and elation, all the while, feeling old and somewhat vestigial. He finds the metropolis, where the presentation will take place, only sparingly developed in what can only be described as mirage-like. It’s fitting that the technology Alan will present features a hologram – promising to transport those who are not there, there. The whole scenario is dreamlike; nothing is as it should be, if Alan is to succeed.
There’s a lot of waiting going on, waiting for the king, waiting for a Wi-Fi signal, waiting to find out if the golf-ball size growth on his neck will kill him. There’s also the confounding duality of the the local culture, where women are seductive despite their coverings, even though adultery can be punished by death. Yes, the whole bunch of it is a little existential and absurd, sort of Godot mixed up with a little Kafka, in a good way. In fact, Eggers begins with an epigraph from Samuel Beckett: “It is not every day that we are needed.”
In A Hologram for the King, Eggers captures the zeitgeist and ennui of the fifty-something generation–divorced, portfolios decimated, jobless, or almost jobless, with little hope of an economic or emotional rally. Numbness has set in, and the auto-pilot is doing the driving.
“…and he smiled in a way that he hoped would be seen as warm. But he felt no warmth. He wanted only to go home. He wanted to be alone. He wanted to watch his Red Sox DVDs while drinking Hanne’s moonshine.”
Yet, this is not a gloomy book. It’s full of hope, humor, and compassion. We root for Alan, our hero. We want him to make the sale, find love, to wake from his self-induced coma, and, most of all, to live. We need him to live.
Eggers’ prose has never been more pared down or more beautiful. I found myself re-reading phrases and paragraphs:
“Trivole turned to survey the yard, the trees, the blue sky above. And then he turned back to the door and began wiping his feet. Instinctively, the woman took a few steps back and opened the door wider. She has not asked Trivole and Alan in, but now she was making way for them–simply because Trivole had begun wiping his feet. Suddenly Alan had the same feeling he had while watching a hypnotist or magician–that there were people in the world for whom the world and its people were subjects on which to cast spells.”
And, Eggers has cast a spell on me. I read A Hologram for the King in the space of two sittings. It is, simply, an old-fashioned page-turner–richly layered, and evocative. A big thumb’s up!
McSweeney’s Books, 2012