Thinking Aloud: “A Hologram for the King”

Mar. 29, 2015 by Darius

I recently read A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers.  Like Eggers’s other works, A Hologram for the King is surreal, well-crafted, and thought-provoking.

Alan Clay is a middle-aged American who can only be described as a product of a bygone era.  His expertise lies in sales and manufacturing in a world where such things are no longer done in America.  Clay finds himself struggling to pay his daughter’s tuition, in debt to former business associates, and friendless.

Clay gets one last chance to make it all better: working for a huge tech company, Clay must present a hologram to the king of Saudi Arabia to win the company the contract for IT work in the King Abdullah Economic City, a grand vision of a metropolis rising out of the desert on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast.

A recurring theme throughout A Hologram for the King is the idea of creating something real, something lasting.  Like Eggers’s other books, much of the force of the novel is not driven by the plot but by Clay’s reminisces about his past life.  Clay previously worked as a sales executive for the Schwinn bicycle company.  He remembers, “He’d see a family walk in, Mom and Dad getting their ten-year-old daughter a World Sport, the kid touching the bike like it was some holy thing.  Alan knew, and the retailer knew, and the family knew, that that bike had been made by hand a few hundred miles north, by a dizzying array of workers, most of them immigrants…and that that bike would last more or less forever.  Why did this matter?  Why did it matter that they had been made just up Highway 57?  It was hard to say.  But Alan was good at his job.  Not such a difficult job, to sell something like that, something solid that would be integral to a thousand childhood memories.”  By the time the book starts, though, Clay finds himself about as far from that as one can possible get: selling a hologram in a still-imaginary city.  Much of the plot is driven by Clay’s desire to build something real again.

Saudi Arabia, itself an often mystifying, surreal society, is the perfect setting for Eggers’s novel.  There is a palpable disconnect in the Kingdom between appearance and reality, and life itself seems to be in a sort of suspended animation, waiting for some unknown release. One Saudi character explains, “Half the women are on Prozac.  And the men, like us, the energy leaks out in dangerous places.”

A Hologram for the King would appeal to anyone who enjoys a well-crafted novel—just don’t expect a Hollywood plot and finish.

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