Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Eggers makes reader root for his sad sack creation
Some critics have sniped that San Francisco's Dave Eggers doesn't do fictional protagonists well, saying the founder and editor of McSweeney's magazine had pillaged his own life for one book (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and merely transcribed a real person's story in another (What Is the What).
No such accusations can be launched at Eggers' latest, the wonderful, deeply melancholy A Hologram for the King, in which he gives us a protagonist who is a unique creation. Alan Clay could be seen as an Everyman -- a businessman who finds himself adrift in the wake of the 2008 recession -- but Eggers makes him more than a prototype.
He's a bit of a sad sack, filled with unlovely desperation, but he has a shy sweetness, conflicted but caring relationships with his family and a deep-seated need to be needed, to be of use.
Alan, a one-time bicycle salesman, is now a consultant, in Saudi Arabia to sell high-tech solutions to the king, who is building a city on the sea called King Abdullah Economic City or KAEC -- it's unclear both to the reader and to Alan whether the unfinished city is an act of unimaginable hubris or a feasible development.
The success of his pitch is imperative; Alan is deep in debt and he will not be able to pay his daughter's college tuition or keep his house if his company doesn't win the contract.
Eggers' prose is clean and unshowy, propelling his somewhat allegorical story -- Alan certainly represents the faltering United States on one level -- forward with subtle momentum. Although not much actually takes place in Hologram -- there's a lot of waiting, sitting alone and driving -- the story is compellingly readable.
Partly this is because Eggers makes us root for Alan, despite his flaws, or perhaps because of them. There are likely many middle-aged white-collar workers who can see themselves in his impending obsoleteness and in his inability to relate to his young co-workers, whose sole concerns seem to be WiFi connectivity.
He weathers looks from his staff, "the kind Brad was giving him now -- that of gazing upon a human who was more burden than boon, more harm than good, irrelevant, superfluous to the forward progress of the world."
Eggers lets us see the ways the damaged Alan still has glimmers of life in his interactions with his Saudi driver and a female doctor who treats him for a growth on his neck (to which Alan has almost wishfully attributed all his problems).
The setting is also resonant. Saudi Arabia is a country of extremes -- gleaming, high-tech cities and primitive mountain villages that fuel Alan's observation that whether you live in a mansion or a stone hut is irrelevant. "The work of man is done behind the back of the natural world," he thinks. "When nature notices, and can muster the energy, it wipes the slate clean again."
The hologram of the title refers to the interactive projection of an executive from his London office that is the centrepiece of Alan's team's presentation to the king, a feat of technological wizardry that is also oddly hollow and lacking substance.
The novel is a lament for the death of that substance, the promotion of faceless communication over face-to-face contact, of artificial digital bustle over products made by people in small-town U.S. factories (Alan was responsible for outsourcing Schwinn's production to China; now he is employed in the vague and undefinable field of consultancy).
Sometimes Eggers' attempts to drive home this theme are a bit thumpingly obvious -- at one point, Alan recalls making a wall in his yard, a physical thing he constructed with his own hands out of stones and mortar, "but then came a visit from the zoning department" -- but they are never less than poignant.
Jill Wilson is a Free Press copy editor.
A Hologram for the King
By Dave Eggers
McSweeney's, 312 pages, $25
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 7, 2012 J9
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