A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING
By Dave Eggers
Hamish Hamilton, $29.99
DAVE Eggers burst onto the literary scene in 2000 with his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the true story of his parents dying of cancer. The title was not false advertising. For all the postmodern handstands, Eggers' debut scoured his own life for emotional truth, balancing intellectual playfulness, the self-absorption of youth and the demands of his stricken, but not defeated, heart.
The book had enough weirdness to avoid cliche's imprecision and the dead hand of sentiment, and enough vulnerability and insight to avoid the dry masturbation of some postmodern fiction.
Since then, Eggers has made good on his potential and become one of American literature's more industrious and highly regarded authors. He has founded the playful and erudite literary journal Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, won the American Book Award for Zeitoun (a non-fiction account of a Syrian-American family's torment after Hurricane Katrina) and written some unspectacular novels.
Indeed, superior journalist and remarkable life writer though he is, Eggers has struggled to turn his brilliant fictional technique to good use in fiction. The struggle pays off in A Hologram for the King, which rejects the ludic ostentation of A Heartbreaking Work … and embraces the elegant restraint and limpid observation of Zeitoun to create a novel - part elegy, part black farce - written for an America that is beginning to realise it is on the wrong side of history.
Alan Clay is a deflated salesman in late middle-age. Divorced and deep in debt, Clay's career has spiralled through the ''progress'' of Western capitalism in a globalised market. He spent his early career selling bicycles, then helped relocate, downsize and take offshore the company he worked for, all in the name of efficiency. He was so efficient, in fact, they didn't need him any more.
During the years, what Alan has sold has become less and less tangible, and having lost his shirt in the financial crisis, he is now in Saudi Arabia, flogging IT services for a new city in the desert. In a nifty bit of gimmickry, the sales pitch and demonstration will connect to London via live hologram. But getting an audience with King Abdullah is an exercise in existential futility.
To pass the time, Clay observes his younger colleagues, reflects on his failures as a father and businessman, and meets a range of people who prove that life bubbles under the surface of Saudi Arabia's repressive regime.
Chief among them is garrulous cab driver Yousef, whom Clay charms with humour. They bond over odd coincidences - both their fathers ran shoe factories, for instance - but their intimacy is brittle, and comes unstuck as Yousef realises, in a dramatic moment, how different they are.
Clay is celibate, but too weak to be upfront about it. One European emigre, Hanne, tries it on with him with painfully awkward results. More happily for Clay but less so for the reader, he falls into the capable hands of a female doctor, Zahra Hakem, and a tentative affair blossoms. It is one of the few moments in the book when Eggers' delicate poise is snatched by something bland and ersatz.
Still, writing about sex is one of the hardest tasks in creative fiction, and besides, the scene has its place within Eggers' insightful treatment of gender. At one level, A Hologram for the King is an intimate portrait of male powerlessness - financial, sexual, most of all emotional; the fact it is set against the backdrop of one of the most terrifying patriarchies on earth only makes Clay's experience seem more bizarre, absurd and true.
And Eggers is at his best in capturing Clay's dubious habits of mind: how he deflects his anxiety into hypochondria, how much of his confidence is faked, or even something as small and desolating as the way he likes the stranger sitting next to him in flight more than anyone he knows. Yet from the self-sabotage of this Willy Loman for the Asian century, Eggers suggests broader avenues of contemplation - on the perils of global capitalism, on mistranslations across culture, generation and gender - without losing a jot of accessibility or stylishness.
It isn't a work of staggering genius, this, but it is an intriguing and surgically executed novel of American decline.