A Hologram for the King
Hamish Hamilton, 336pp, £18.99
“Not able to stand kindness at this time. Feeling, heart, everything in strange condition. Unfinished business,” writes Herzog to a friend in Saul Bellow’s classic novel of male midlife crisis. The protagonist of Dave Eggers’s latest novel, A Hologram for the King, is decidedly Herzogian: indeed, “Unfinished Business” might have been an alternative title for the story of Alan Clay and his midlife crisis.
Like Herzog, Clay spends his novel surveying the wreckage of his life: a vengeful ex-wife, a daughter he loves but from whom he fears estrangement, failed professional ambitions and the anxieties about virility that male writers keep mistaking for a universal symbol of existential crisis. Clay even writes Herzogian letters to his daughter, unsent epistles in which he tries to make sense of his disappointments: Clay is the kind of man who can magically turn success into defeat.
As the novel opens, Clay has just arrived in Saudi Arabia, where he hopes to sell an American IT system (his conglomerate is ironically named “Reliant”) to the King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC). It is Clay’s last chance: nearly broke, he is trying to sell his house to pay his daughter’s university tuition. Banking everything on the possibility that a few grains of Arabian wealth might trickle down to him, Clay must impress King Abdullah with a hologram presentation that will convince him to use Reliant to provide the KAEC’s IT infrastructure.
Once in the desert, Clay finds himself trapped in an absurdist, Beckettian landscape, in which people appear, make gnomic comments and disappear. Banished to a tent, Clay and his young team of IT consultants can’t get the air conditioning or Wi-Fi to work. As he waits for the king, who may be no more imminent than Godot, Clay passes the time by wandering around the deve - lopment, getting drunk, watching baseball games on cable, deciding that an ominous cyst on his neck must be cancerous and brooding over his many failures.
Clay used to sell Schwinn bicycles in Chicago; he was a good salesman, proud of the fine, handmade merchandise he sold to happy, hopeful families. But as he was promoted, he helped render himself obsolete: “More efficient without the unions, cut ’em out. More efficient without American workers, period, cut ’em out. Why didn’t I see it coming? More efficient without me, too . . . We made it so efficient I became unnecessary. I made myself irrelevant.” They also put Schwinn, like so many other local, respected manufacturing companies, out of business.
After contributing to the collapse of his industry, Clay dreams of redeeming himself by designing a new bicycle, “with clean lines, tons of chrome, everything built to last a thousand years and never look weary”. Yet his funding collapses and he is left even further in debt than before, relying on holograms instead of “three-dimensional things”, as his father, who was a factory foreman, rather too italically tells him:
Talk about three-dimensional, Alan. These are actual things. They’re making actual things over there [in China], and we’re making websites and holograms. Every day our people are making their websites and holograms, while sitting in chairs made in China, working on computers made in China, driving over bridges made in China. Does that sound sustainable to you, Alan?
Lest we miss the point that Alan’s crisis allegorises that of his nation, Eggers creates a series of secondary characters to remind us. On his flight to Saudi Arabia, Clay meets another businessman “who was drunk and maybe unhinged, too, [and] was, like Clay, born into manufacturing and somewhere later got lost in worlds tangential to the making of things”. He meets an architect who has been working in Dubai, Singapore, Abu Dhabi and China but not in America: “Not that it’s about the biggest or tallest, but you know, in the US now there’s not that kind of dreaming happening. It’s on hold. The dreaming’s being done elsewhere for now, the architect said. Then he left the party.”
The ethos of this novel is about the value of making things, of taking pride in them and creating economies based on the solidity of things. But is the making of things really the solution or part of the problem? Eggers doesn’t want to ask. Similarly, Eggers gestures towards the problem of oppression in Saudi Arabia and shows us a few fleeting migrant workers but the main characters in the novel are all westernised and speak perfect American English. Clay’s driver, Yousef, checks his car for a bomb: “It’s nothing terroristic,” he assures Alan. “It’s just this guy who thinks I’m screwing his wife.” Yousef is given some of the novel’s best lines, such as when they look at the roads to nowhere in KAEC, which are being swept by workers: “This is where the money’s going. They’re sweeping the sand in a desert.”
Like many such comic characters, including Herzog, Clay is anxious, paunchy, often foolish to the point of buffoonery, and yet the women he meets find him unaccountably attractive. (Just once, it would be nice to read a novel about a man whose midlife crisis so bores all the women he meets that they tell him where he can put his self-pity, instead of prompting them to strip off their clothes.) Clay claims to be tired of himself and yet nothing absorbs him more. He has no time – and neither does the novel – for his three co-workers, who are sketched in only to disappear.
In one respect at least Clay differs defiantly from Herzog: he has lost interest in sex. Part of Eggers’s comedy is that Alan is indifferent to the orgies he encounters among the bored expatriates in the desert. Clay’s lack of desire is symptomatic not just of his depression but of the novel’s theme that Americans have stopped dreaming or wishing for anything real, lost in dreamscape worlds, trapped between nostalgia for the past and hubristic visions of the future.
It is not surprising, however, when a novel about people in limbo encounters problems with plot. How to make anything happen in a story about people who are emotionally paralysed? Eggers falls back on two solutions, both of which feel almost as tired as Clay. There is the inevitable woman who reawakens Clay’s torpid desire and a surreal trip into the Saudi countryside that ends with Alan on a wolf hunt with local villagers, which goes quite predictably awry.
A Hologram for the King was nominated for the National Book Award last year in the US, where it has been greeted with rapturous reviews. There is no doubt about Eggers’s talent: he is one of the most inter - esting and energetic young (-ish) American writers around and his first novel in a decade is intelligent, entertaining and full of finely observed impressions. However, its lament for a lost dream of real Americans making real things is at the very least deeply nostalgic.
Viewed from one perspective, we might even think that such sentimental materialism is what got us into trouble in the first place. It is telling, surely, that Clay has come to fetishise a sleek, silver bicycle as the object that might redeem him and his country: is such a miracle of chrome a simple child’s toy, a mode of locomotion, a modernist art deco vision or yet another object for Americans to worship?
The hologram becomes not just an image of Clay’s illusions but of the illusions with which the US sustains itself. The mirage of continued world power, the delusion of economic might, is also a degradation of the American dream. Holograms are all that America dreams about now.
Sarah Churchwell’s “Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of ‘The Great Gatsby’” will be published by Virago in June