Dave Eggers' new novel, A Hologram for the King, is remarkably fascinating for a book about people doing nothing in the middle of nowhere.
Eggers has in the past wandered back and forth across the border between fiction and nonfiction in such books as Zeitoun and What Is the What, and even in his careermaking memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. But A Hologram for the King is entirely fictional, although it's based in thorough research into its setting in Saudi Arabia.
Its central character, Alan Clay, is an American struggling with middle age, a failed marriage and the harsh economic slapdown of the recession. (The book is set in 2010.)
Alan travels from his home in the suburbs of Boston to Riyadh and then to Jeddah. He's part of a team representing Reliant, an American firm hoping to win a major contract to provide IT services for a new city being built from scratch on the shore of the Red Sea. King Abdullah Economic City, a.k.a. KAEC (which the locals pronounce "cake"), is so far a sprinkling of buildings, a network of roads and canals and a lot of big ideas. But it is the pet project of the king of this novel's title, King Abdullah, the aging but powerful (and incalculably rich) ruler of Saudi Arabia.
Winning that contract is crucial for Alan. He's not a Reliant staffer but a consultant, and a desperate one: He's broke, deep in debt and terrified of telling his beloved daughter, Kit, he won't be able to pay her college tuition.
There's a lot of Willie Loman to Alan. At 54, he's old enough to have begun his career as a Fuller Brush salesman, ringing doorbells and selling, of course, himself. (He still knows, he boasts, a thousand jokes. A sample: What do you call a guy who knows forty-eight ways of making love but doesn't know any girls? A consultant.)
He went on to a successful stint with a quintessentially American company, bicycle manufacturer Schwinn, climbing the ladder to management. In one of many unfinished letters he writes to Kit, he explains the company's response to "getting squeezed by the unions in Chicago" — moving manufacturing to Mississippi, then to Taiwan and China. "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. Hell, Kit, we made it so efficient I became unnecessary. I made myself irrelevant."
One thing Alan does not have in common with Willie is a loving wife. His ex, Ruby, is "too strong and too smart and too cruel," so much so their daughter wants to sever all contact with her.
So it's a lonely but hopeful man who checks into the Jeddah Hilton, only to oversleep drastically the first morning he's supposed to be at KAEC. Having missed the shuttle, he hires a driver: "— Driver, guide, hero. Yousef, the man said." Yousef will indeed be his guide, and Alan, very much a stranger in a strange land, needs one.
Not for nothing does this book have an epigraph from Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. ("It is not every day that we are needed.") One does not schedule a meeting with King Abdullah, one awaits his pleasure. Every day Alan and his team, three opaque young Americans, are ferried from Jeddah to the nascent KAEC, where they are instructed to set up not in the multistory office building but in the nearby "presentation tent," a cavernous space where the only thing less dependable than the air conditioning is the Wi-Fi — not exactly optimum for a technology demo.
Soon Alan is sinking into the bizarre rhythm of hurrying up and waiting. He punctuates the time, days and then weeks, with fretting darkly over a cyst on the back of his neck, flirting ambivalently with a sexy Danish embassy employee and knocking himself out in his hotel room at night with bottles of a Saudi moonshine called siddiqi while watching his DVD of the Red Sox winning the World Series. There is a surreal embassy party where Westerners dive for handfuls of prescription drugs tossed in the swimming pool, and the even more bizarre surgery Alan undergoes for that cyst (which he secretly hopes is something fatal, absolving him of responsibility).
But mostly, there is waiting. Yousef, a thoroughly Westernized kid who's on the run from his ex-wife's jealous second husband, becomes the Didi to Alan's Gogo in this version of Waiting for Godot. Eggers is never heavy-handed about his inspiration — you don't need any knowledge of Godot to appreciate this novel — but it echoes even in the dialogue between Alan and Yousef:
— But there's no options here. I told you that.
— So leave.
— I could leave.
— Then leave.
— But it would be better to stay here, and have things be different.
And, although Godot may be Hologram's philosophical source, Eggers is no Beckettian minimalist. The novel is paradoxically suspenseful, but it's also rich in character and in Eggers' evocative writing about place — the vast and sterile modern buildings, the eye-searing desert, the half-wild mountain town of Yousef's birth.
Alan is an Everyman, a Loman, a Gogo who can't, a hollow hologram, but he's also a strikingly real man whose strange story is all too familiar. A Hologram for the King, as far from home as it might seem, is an acute slice of American life.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.