Friday, November 23, 2012

A Hologram for the King

A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers, is a postmodern novel whose tone and style bears resemblance to other contemporary writers such as David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, Richard Powers and Neil Gaiman (Wikipedia, The enormous desert spaces and accompanying sense of loneliness and alienation echo scenes from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami. Water and well-like imagery are remarkable similar. At the same time, Egger's book is reminiscent of the work of older authors such as Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot) and Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman).

The narrator in A Hologram for the King is 54-year-old Alan Clay.  Adam was once an executive at the Schwinn Bicycle Company when it was based in Chicago.  He helped the company outsource its manufacturing to China, ultimately putting Schwinn out of business.  Unwittingly, Alan outsourced himself out of a job.  His father, a World War II vet and former factory worker, never forgives him for undercutting the union.

When the book opens, we find Alan in Saudi Arabia with three young assistants from Reliant Corporation.  His job is to get the IT contract for a city still in its planning stage.  The King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) is just being built and its condominiums stand empty.  The three techies have set up equipment in a vast tent in order to present a hologram of their vision for this city of the future.
The only problem is that King Abdullah, for whom the presentation is intended, fails to show up day after day.  He seems to be out of the country and no one knows when he will return. With their wi-fi signal weak, there is nothing for the three assistants to do.  The tent is poorly air conditioned and food for the team is not forthcoming.  Outside they are surrounded by blistering desert heat. The ennui is almost palpable.

The stark, lonely surroundings mirror Alan's inner state of mind.  He has had a messy divorce from a woman described as cruel and unbalanced.  Alan has lost nearly everything.  His home is in foreclosure.  He cannot pay the college tuition for his only daughter, Kit. His one hope, like that of Willie Loman, is to make this one great sale.  If Reliant is awarded the IT contract for KAEC, Alan's commission will be in the six figures and his problems will be solved.  

(Alan) wanted to believe that this kind of thing, a city rising from dust, could happen. The architectural renderings he'd seen were magnificent. Gleaming towers, tree-lined public spaces and promenades, a series of canals allowing commuters to get almost anywhere by boat. The city was futuristic and romantic, but also practical.  It could be made with extant technology and a lot of money, but money Abdullah certainly had. (p. 39)

Throughout the book, Alan recalls the suicide of his neighbor.  The scene of the neighbor, newly converted to Transcendentalism, stepping into a pond haunts both Alan and the reader.  Alan keeps replaying the scene in his mind.  It took the man hours to fully immerse and no one tried to stop him or call the police. When the police were summoned, they acted only when it was too late.

What is Eggers saying here about our society?  That the neighbor believing, as did Emerson, in self-reliance, gives in to despair? What do the reactions of the bystanders--including Alan--mean?  Why did everyone go about their business as if nothing was happening?

Alan's sense of ineptitude (displayed through his sexual impotence) is increased by his lack of control in KAEC, Saudi Arabia. Failure and regret dog him.  But Alan, despite his many doubts and previous failures, continues to have hope for the future.  It is this optomism that distinguishes him from Willie Loman.  Is Alan a symbol of American capitalism itself?  As Pico Iyer concludes in his eloquent review:

Eggers has developed an exceptional gift for opening up the lives of others so as to offer the story of globalism as it develops and, simultaneously, to unfold a much more archetypal tale of struggle and loneliness and drift.  Public and private explorations come together, and as this groundbreaking writer grows wiser and deeper and more melancholy, evolving from telling his own stories to voicing America's, he might be asking us how we can bring the best parts of our past into a planetary future.
(New York Times Book Review, July 22, 2012)

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