A Hologram for the King
A Novel by Dave Eggers
2011 / 312 Pages
The Setup: In a rising Saudi Arabian city, far from weary, recession-scarred America, a struggling businessman pursues a last-ditch attempt to stave off foreclosure, pay his daughter’s college tuition, and finally do something great. In A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers takes us around the world to show how one man fights to hold himself and his splintering family together in the face of the global economy’s gale-force winds. This taut, richly layered, and elegiac novel is a powerful evocation of our contemporary moment — and a moving story of how we got here. (From the hardcover edition)
Just how much Saudi money is invested in the United States? That’s the question that immediately came to mind as I began to read A Hologram for the King and became immersed its foreign setting. I remembered seeing a documentary, perhaps something by Michael Moore, where the figure was laid out, but I just couldn’t remember for the life of me what it was. A quick Google search reveals that in 2002 the number was apparently estimated to be somewhere around $600bn:
Details of Saudi investments in the US are sketchy but financial analysts believe they range between $400bn and $600bn. The funds are invested in private equity, the stock and bond markets and real estate. The figures include investments by members of the royal family.
Yikes. I’m getting a bit off track though. While this is a book that takes place in Saudi Arabia, it focuses more on the decline of America’s ability to manufacture anything domestically. It seems that labor laws and unions have ruined any chance us ever being able to mass produce anything at home, and as a direct result China is flourishing. Oh how we love the China bashing though, don’t we? Everything is their fault. If things keep up, Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story will become a reality. Yeah, not so much. However, maybe DeLillo was on to something when he wrote Cosmopolis. That feels closer to the truth to me somehow with currency manipulation being the obvious similarity.
What Eggers’ novel offers up as its example of the American manufacturing decline is Schwinn’s inability to keep their profitable business afloat after union negotiations at their Chicago plant went belly up. And he does so by way of introducing readers to Alan Clay, a fictitious executive from the former bicycle manufacturer turned salesman for an IT firm that wants to provide end to end services for the entire population of to-be-developed King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC.) The centerpiece of their proposal is a new, state-of-the-art hologram technology which should revolutionize long distance communications. That is, if no one else has a similar competing technology and can provide their service at an even cheaper rate.
Clay is an interesting character that waffles between being completely indecisive one moment and large and in charge the next. He’s got a failed marriage and a failed profession in his past. He’s got mounting debt and a college age daughter in his present. And he wants to manufacture his own line of bicycles in the future. In the United States of America. Finding a bank that wouldn’t laugh him out of the building and around the corner about that last bit? Impossible.
He’s also got a growth on his neck which he assumes must be diseased and must be feeding evil junk directly to his spinal column. It simply has to be the reason for his erratic behavior. He pokes and prods at it before finally going to a doctor and learning that it’s benign. Without the neck bulge to blame for every bad decision he’s ever made, what ever will he do?
And so he and his team set up in a tent across from the black box, the largest building in the city, and spend day after day patiently waiting for the king to arrive so they can deliver their sales pitch. Clay needs this sale to happen. He needs to pay off his house, ensure his daughter has the funds necessary to continue her schooling, and come out with enough left over to make his bike dream happen on his own. But as the days start to blend together Clay begins to question it all as he reflects on his life while attempting to write a letter to his daughter that would adequately defend the actions of his ex-wife, a woman he can’t stand.
Reading like a series of amusing anecdotes that are strung together by the strangeness of a foreign setting a la Lost in Translation, A Hologram for the King manages to subtly sneak it’s points across while also keeping the reader highly entertained by the missteps and misadventures of its protagonist. It’s not a bait and switch exactly. It’s more like something that slowly creeps up on you by the book’s conclusion and slaps you hard in the face, demanding to finally be recognized as significant. I’ve been here the whole time! Why have you been ignoring me!?
Regardless of what you choose to take away from it, it’s hard to put down for any length of time. A worthy contender for this year’s National Book Award indeed.