Edward T. WheelerSeptember 10, 2012 - 3:49pm0 comments
One might quip that A Hologram for the King is a state of the States novel except for the fact that it is set in Saudi Arabia and in the mind of the books protagonist, Alan Clay. David Eggers new novel, has a thematic force that places Clay between Willie Loman and Vladimir and Estragon. He has all of the failed salesmans dogged pursuit of success and the two clowns deferred expectation. Much of the story unfolds in a new city in a barren part of Saudi Arabia, echoing in its physical condition the surreal distortions of Becketts play.To be sure, this is the globalized world of outsourced manufacturing and multinational corporations. Alan, at fifty-four, is old enough to have learned the salesmans trade from mentors with the same techniques as those who taught Willie. But to his chagrin, Alan has participated in the demise of American manufacturing, Schwinn bicycles in particular, unable to stop the forces that moved production to places of cheapest labor. The IT contract that Alan is attempting to sign with King Abdullah on behalf of Reliant, a huge American communications firm, will, he thinks, be his remaking. The commission will clear his debts, reinstate his college age daughters respect, and placate the carping criticism of his father. So Alan finds himself, the head of a sales team that includes three young technicians with whom he shares little, sequestered in a tent outside the administration building of KAEC (King Abdullah Economic City, pronounced cake) waiting for the king. Their hologram technology takes video conferencing to another level: a participant thousands of miles away can appear to walk about the stage in the tent. Alan is certain, or tells himself that he is, that he will make the sale to the King. And so he waits, and has opportunity to explore the kingdom in the limited way allowed to foreigners.Eggers offers us a measure in Alan: American enterprise in a highly competitive and sophisticated global market. The old sales techniques dont work. Wi-Fi signals mean more than personal connections, and Alan is beset with memories of his Massachusetts neighbor walking irrevocably to his death by hypothermia in the frigid pond that abuts their houses. KAEC, in its futuristic aspirations, both inspires Alans hopes for millennial change and inevitably takes him by comparison back to the losses of his past: divorce, failure as a manufacturer of bicycles, and as a father. He has ambiguous and confused liaisons with an attractive European bookkeeper and then with a Saudi female doctor who removes a troubling cyst from Alans neck. Identity, both professional and personal, become key issues.One cant help but like Alan. His swings in mood, his corrosive honesty in self-examination (best exemplified by the steak knife he takes to his cyst), and his openness to hope and fresh experiences weigh happily against the beaten self-doubt that his waiting for the King seems always to summon.The relationship Alan forms with his driver, a young Saudi who has spent a year in the States, also allows Eggers to explore some of the contradictions of the Kingdom. Their friendship seems to peak when Alan accompanies his driver to his remote family village. He believes he has crossed cultural divides in the ease of his relationship, only to evoke near tragedy at the peak of his fellow-feeling.About him Alan finds unresolved relationships with women, tortured attempts (by letters) to reconcile himself and his daughter to a wayward mother, and his inability to placate his unrelenting union-organizing father. Lost potential, what-might-have-been, and Alans determined attempts to fulfill the American dream blister into torpor in the unrelenting Saudi sun. What virtual reality his hologram may provide is displaced by the simple fact of waiting for the king.Critics often note the clean and precise prose Eggers commands; his tone, somehow both ironic and compassionate, makes us care about Alans fate. His driver at one point remarks, I am trying to remember why I like you. That about sums up the effect of this canny and compelling work.