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Waiting for the king: A review of Dave Eggers’ latest book

Dave Eggers is an impossibly energetic literary impresario. After bursting onto the scene with his charmingly brilliant memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius in 2000, he leveraged his newfound literary capital to start the McSweeney’s publishing house, which publishes fresh new work by up-and-coming young writers as well as puts out literary magazines like McSweeney’s and The Believer, which are must-reads for lit-mad twentysomethings. He also founded 826 Valencia, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center for underprivileged young folk, with offices now in eight major cities, and runs humanitarian projects like Voice of Witness that seek to expose human rights violations worldwide. He’s done all this while writing four critically acclaimed works of fiction, a work of nonfiction, co-writing the feature film Where The Wild Things Are, and basically inventing a new kind of persona for an American writer: sane, unpretentious, serious but unfailingly cheerful, his writerly ego held firmly in check by his consciousness of truly global concerns.

His new novel, A Hologram for the King, conceived in 2008 at the start of the global economic meltdown that shows no signs of firming up any time soon, couldn’t be more timely. The basic plot set-up is simple. We have a washed-up American business consultant, Alan Clay, who’s trying to sell Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah on the idea of contracting with his firm, Reliant (a Cisco Systems-like company), to supply IT for a massive (and real-life) megacity called — ludicrously — King Abdullah Economic City, which the king is developing along the coast of the Red Sea. Alan and his three young techie subordinates have developed a sales presentation that features the use of holograms — which, despite their basic irrelevance to any actual IT they’d be wiring the city with, are supposed to wow the king into signing with Reliant. Established in a huge plastic tent, fine-tuning the presentation, Alan and his team are forced to wait and wait until the king decides to show up.

For Alan, it’s a little like waiting for Godot — Eggers suggests the allusion himself with an epigraph from Beckett — which gives Alan plenty of time to examine the mess he’s made of his life. Starting out as a salesman for Schwinn bicycles, a prototype for the old American corporate model (a company that produces actual goods made by actual unionized American workers), Alan eventually went into management and succumbed, like everybody else, to the pressures of the new global economy, helping kill the union and outsourcing labor to Asia until the Schwinn reputation for quality and durability was ruined and the company went under. Since then, Alan has bounced from job to job, ultimately landing in that smelly bog inhabited by irrelevant middle-aged businessman everywhere — “consulting.”

Still smarting from a failed marriage, unable to work up the funds to send his daughter to her next year of college, celibate for the last eight years and not particularly keen on ending his losing streak, Alan spends his nights in a Jeddah hotel room drinking bootleg alcohol and writing letters to his daughter that he knows he’ll never send. And when he’s not writing letters, he’s worrying about the golf-ball-sized growth on the back of his neck that he suspects is malignant. (He worries so much that, drunkenly hoping it’s only a boil he can lance, he plunges a knife into the growth, making a harrowingly bloody, infected mess of things. The man’s in despair.) During the long dusty days of waiting, he tries to feel useful in the tent, befriends his driver, Youssef (the novel’s best character), and gets involved in an unconsummated relationship with a Danish businesswoman. Yet he’s overcome not just by the inertia of his own failed life, but by the strangeness of King Abdullah Economic City, this dream-in-the-desert Arabian Vegas characterized by absurd economic inequalities (foreign labor working for pittances living side-by-side with multimillionaires) and Muslim hypocrites conducting secret orgies and harboring caches of outlawed liquor.

Eggers’ prose is attractively unadorned and unaffected — and though that leads to some characterizations that are too skeletal and a few episodes that feel a little aimless, he’s one of the few post-postmodern writers who’s managed to find a style that feels natural, modest, casually comic; it’s a corrective to the strenuous exertions of most male American writing. The prose — in fact, the global economic themes, too — are reminiscent of Joan Didion’s, though Eggers is much warmer a writer; he likes his characters too much to strand them in Didion’s existential limbo. Perhaps a better comparison is to Don DeLillo, who in Cosmopolis wrote that “the interaction between technology and capital” was, in the new century, “the only thing worth pursuing professionally and intellectually.” That interaction — so monstrous in scale that the solitary human becomes, to invoke Eggers’ powerful word, “dishonored” — is what King Abdullah Economic City symbolizes, and Eggers’ take on it is movingly humane, if familiar: Capital and technology are the twin gods of the 21st century, and in their interaction they’ve become indistinguishable from demons. A Hologram For The King is a rich and very readable treatment of the theme, and here’s hoping it gets the wide audience it deserves.

A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING by Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s, 312 pages