Let us imagine that this novel — about a divorced, middle-aged business consultant trying to save himself from bankruptcy by landing an Internet technology contract with Saudi Arabia — had been written by someone not named Dave Eggers. Most readers, I suspect, would judge it a pleasant evening’s entertainment, easy and enjoyable to read, somewhat familiar in theme. Certainly 54-year-old Alan Clay seems yet another in a long line of defeated, messed-up American losers, hoping against hope for a bailout or even for some kind of redemption.
In years past, Alan was married to Ruby, an abrasive if good-looking activist who wants, in her loud, unpleasant way, to save the world. (Her ideal mate, Alan later decides, would have been Aristotle Onassis or George Soros.) Back then he worked as an executive at Schwinn, the long-classic bicycle manufacturer. But Alan was part of the team that decided it would be cheaper to build bikes in China instead of the United States. Unfortunately, once the Chinese learned how to produce a solid product, they undercut the American price point and put Schwinn out of business.
Since then, Alan has lurched from one misjudged business venture to another, gotten divorced, and is now facing utter ruin:
“He had moved from Schwinn to Huffy to Frontier Manufacturing Partners to Alan Clay Consulting to sitting at home watching DVDs of the Red Sox winning the Series in ’04 and ’07. The game when they hit four consecutive home runs against the Yankees. April 22, 2007. He’d watched those four and a half minutes a hundred times and each viewing brought him something like joy. A sense of rightness, of order. It was a victory that could never be taken away.”
Alan yearns for such a victory himself, recalling with bitter nostalgia a time when he was “selling actual objects to actual people.” Alas, the America of foundries and factories, of mills and looms, seems to have vanished. Even when trying to establish his own premium, Made-in-America bicycle company, Alan finds himself dismissed as a relict of the past. “Some of the bank people were so young they’d never seen a business proposal suggesting manufacturing things in the state of Massachusetts. They thought they’d unearthed some ancient shaman, full of clues to a forgotten world.”
But now, Alan is here, in Saudi Arabia with three young techies from Reliant Corp., convinced that he’s found the answer to his financial woes. In King Abdullah Economic City — a bustling town of the future, still largely in the planning stage — “he and his team would set up a holographic teleconference system and would wait to present it to King Abdullah himself. If Abdullah was impressed, he would award the IT contract for the entire city to Reliant, and Alan’s commission, in the mid-six figures, would fix everything that ailed him.”
The epigraph to “A Hologram for the King” comes from Samuel Beckett: “It is not every day we are needed.” And so, like the tramps in “Waiting for Godot,” Alan and his rather colorless team wait and wait and wait for the king’s visit. They sprawl under a plastic tent next to one of the three completed buildings of King Abdullah Economic City and wait. They are, in effect, caught up in a Saudi version of Beckett’s theater of the absurd.
Most of the action of the novel concerns Alan’s search for connection. He writes abortive letter after letter to his beloved daughter Kit, whose college tuition he can no longer afford to pay. He enjoys wisecracking with an on-call driver named Yousef, attends a bacchanal at the Danish Embassy, worries about a lump on his neck — is it cancer? — as the cause of persistent clumsiness, and tentatively embarks on relationships with two women. As time goes by, he recognizes that the entire country of Saudi Arabia “seemed to operate on two levels, the official and the actual.” Consequently, there are episodes that suggest not just the absurd but also the vaguely Kafkaesque, as when Alan stumbles into a hidden world on the third floor of an unfinished apartment building. Instances of drunken, even insane behavior, and the threat of murderous violence also punctuate the novel, interrupting its light comedy. Could we be heading for a shocking denouement a la Paul Bowles or Patricia Highsmith? Mostly, though, time passes; nothing happens.
The reader soon adjusts to the leisurely, almost desultory pace of the story, to the relative austerity of the prose. Sometimes Eggers offers neat capsule vignettes: “At the exit they drove past a desert-colored Humvee, a machine gun mounted on top. A Saudi soldier was sitting next to it, in a beach chair, his feet soaking in an inflatable pool.” At other times Eggers grows sententious, perhaps deliberately in Alan’s letters to Kit, but apparently without irony in several vaguely philosophical passages:
“Nature tells man that she will kill him anywhere. In flat land, she will kill him with tornadoes. Live near a coast and she will send tsunamis to erase centuries of work. Earthquakes mock all engineering, all notions of permanence. Nature wants to kill, kill, kill, laugh at our work, wipe itself clean.”
Throughout “A Hologram for the King,” the narrative deftly counterpoints the present and Alan’s hopes for the future against his memories of the past. Alan recalls a friend who committed suicide, remembers the techniques of door-to-door salesmanship that he learned at Fuller Brush (although he neglects to mention the free samples, which in the summer I worked for the company were the main come-ons), and he calls up sometimes-painful memories of his youthful courtship of Ruby, followed by self-pitying outbursts about their unhappy later years: “She had done him great harm, repeatedly — she’d torn him open, thrown all kinds of terrible ruinous stuff inside him, and then had sewn him back up.”
Thematically, then, this is a novel about well-intentioned bumbling, about impotence and failure and self-delusion, on both the personal and national level. It is also a novel by Dave Eggers, whose name is synonymous with almost everything hip and cool on today’s literary scene. Is it an accident that the book’s jacketless embossed cover almost appears to proclaim: “A Hologram for the King Dave Eggers”? The acknowledgments — acknowledgments for a novel, mind you — list dozens and dozens of people who read, advised, edited, proofed and helped produce the book. The cynical might wonder whether this is a work of art or a corporate product.
But put aside such unworthy thoughts, and what do we actually have here? A diverting, well-written novel about a middle-aged American dreamer, joined to a critique of how the American dream has been subverted by outsourcing our know-how and manufacturing to third-world nations. That last is certainly a distinctly contemporary touch. However, as for Alan himself: We’ve seen him and his brothers before, in William Dean Howells’s “The Rise of Silas Lapham,” in Theodore Dreiser’s “The Financier” and Sinclair Lewis’s “Babbitt,” in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and John Updike’s Rabbit novels. In literature, if not in life, middle-aged businessmen seldom find happiness.
Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Post at wapo.st/reading-room.
A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING
By Dave Eggers
McSweeney’s. 312 pp. $25