Gotham Diary:
This Is It
12 December 2012


Can I blame the utter inertia that seizes me this morning on an extraordinarily good book? Probably not. But I’m here to say that Dave Eggers’s new novel, A Hologram For the King, poses the risk of a literary form of sunstroke to anyone rash enough to read it in one sitting. Which is, nevertheless, how it ought to be read, the first time.

As I took in the story of Alan Clay, an American salesman in Saudi Arabia, I felt, as intimately as I would feel the temperature of the water in a swimming pool, that I was reading a book that both Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace had wanted to write, but could not, because their typing fingers helplessly transformed vernacular speech into something more sophisticated and complex. Alan Clay’s story is sophisticated and complex — this is a very big present in a very small package — but the language in which Eggers tells it is apparently artless, nearly flat. What gives it life is a muted but biting sarcasm. Here is Adam catching himself out at rationalizing his failure to set aside enough money for his daughter’s college education.

Now he was lying. She didn’t deserve that. She’d done nothing wrong. And, yet, the economy was this, the world was that, these schools were overpriced, ridiculously overpriced — my God, did they simply pull a tuition number out of the wind and then add ten percent? — but still. Had he planned better, had he not been so incompetent, he would have whatever she needed. He had twenty years to save $200k. How hard was that? It was ten thousand a year. Much less assuming any kind of interest on the money. All he had to do was save $60k and leave it alone. But he didn’t leave it alone. He played with it. He invested it, invested it in himself and others. He thought he could make the $200k at will, in any given year. How could he have predicted the world losing interest in people like him?

The better part off the text is either reflective material in Alan’s inner voice or minimally reported dialogue.

— There’s a party at the embassy tonight.
— The Danish embassy?
— Yes, and it will be bacchanalian.
— I’m already drunk. That moonshine.
— That’s good. You’ll fit in. Will you come?

It will be obvious to anyone who has ever tried to write the simplest letter that this unadorned style is not easily achieved, but nevertheless it reads easily — too easily, we uneasily feel, to account for its power, the source of which is hidden among the plain words. By the same token, we don’t have to put any work into imagining Saudi Arabia: to Alan, it is very much the cliché of glitz, sand, and veils familiar to any well-informed reader.

***

The question at the end of the first passage is not offered as an excuse for not saving money; the subject has shifted slightly. The question explains why Adam is both desperate and deflated — and in Saudi Arabia. The world that has lost interest in Alan is a world made by Alan and others like him.

Another novelist who came to mind was Walter Kirn, and, behind him, Kazuo Ishiguro and Franz Kafka. These writers would all have bent Alan’s story beyond straightforward naturalism. The wonder of Hologram is that it packs the same dread, the same sense of impalpable doom, without invoking mysterious influences. As a businessman doing what the other businessmen have appeared to be doing, Alan has taken part in the absurd dismemberment of the American economy, and presided over his own bankruptcy. He has responded to the threat of suffocating bureaucracy in ways that make it more suffocating. His response to regulation has been reckless relocation. As Alan’s agony and redemption unfold beside the Red Sea, it becomes clear that China is now the number one country, thanks to a lot of help from the prior incumbent. You can make this stuff up, but how much more satisfying when you don’t have to. 

The tragedy, if any, is America’s, not Alan Clay’s. True, it does seem likely, at the beginning of the book, that Alan will come to a bad end. His situation is too precarious for any degree of confidence. His finances are in worse than disarray, and his neck is disfigured by a growth that, when he comes up from denial, Alan feels sure must be cancer. At first, his participation in the presentation that has brought his sales team to Jeddah is ineffectual. The atmosphere of the first half of Hologram is that of a Last Con.

But, just as Eggers doesn’t have to invent the horror story of American business in the age of financialization, neither does he have to invent the dangerous absurdities of life in Saudi Arabia. As Alan strays from the corridors in which visitors to the KSA can reasonably expect to be safe, he is revived by a series of thrilling adventures. He becomes attentive and competent — and lucky. The shapeless fifty-four year old whom we meet on the opening page becomes, in the second half of the book, more recognizable as George Clooney. It would be wrong to say that A Hologram For the King has a conventionally happy ending, but it would be right to say that its hero is unquestionably robust at the finish.   

On every page, I felt: I’ve read this story before. I’ve seen the movie, many times. But this is the best. This is it.