Dave Egger’s June release, A Hologram for the King, is a new kind of writing for the head of the McSweeney’s conglomeration; the language is sparse, stripped down, and remarkably concise. It maintains the sort of command of the English language that we’ve come to expect from Eggers without the more robust language of novels past (I’m thinking You Shall Know Our Velocity). No doubt Eggers is a talented writer, but A Hologram for the King’s mistake is in the story itself, the plot, the characters.
The novel is slow moving. In 312 pages the protagonist, Alan Clay, travels to Saudi Arabia, preps for an IT sales pitch for his company, and finally gives the presentation (or rather his coworkers do) to an under-amused king. While there are small excursions and ruminations on his past, his college-aged daughter, and his cruel ex-wife, these elements fail to propel Alan’s story. A quick synopsis of the plot says all there is about A Hologram for the King, perhaps only failing to mention the overwhelming agenda. At times Eggers’ novel unleashes paragraphs about the state of America, about the jobs and the economy, about the loss of unions, and the changes of globalization. Mentions are made about the recent BP leak, the know-it-all American persona, property rights.
Of course these issues are all relevant; they should be appearing in contemporary fiction because they are hallmarks of our era. The way in which Eggers dishes them out however – the characters’ reflections acting as monologues, anecdotes so clearly intended to make a salient point – tells the readers how it is, rather than showing them or trusting their interpretive capabilities.
Alan Clay is, furthermore, nothing short of pathetic, and while that’s no reason to discredit a character, he lacks redeeming traits. What initiates as second-hand embarrassment (the “ugh, man” moment, the covering the face with a hand), becomes almost grueling, as nothing goes Alan’s way, as Alan’s self-consciousness at his own abilities as an employee, father, partner, inhibit his daily life.
I’ve read short stories and novels with uncomfortable characters, of course. It’s easy enough to witness a character’s embarrassing actions and identify. But Alan is one embarrassing moment after another – his alcoholic self-medication, his awkward interactions with women, his failed attempts to prove himself manly. When the novel ends and Alan seems hopeful of his future, it’s impossible to be hopeful with him. We’ve already seen him fail so many times, without any hints of redemption.
While it’s likely that other contemporary novels have examined the current state of America, its decline in power and prestige, I do believe A Hologram for the King expresses Egger’s uniquely optimistic perspective. Hologram reflects a glimmer of hope under the pressures of mass globalization. It is perhaps Alan’s final gesture of hope that ends on the same optimistic note of all of Egger’s personal ventures: Alan seeking a new beginning in Saudi Arabia despite no reassurance.
I’m not sure if it’s because of the time that has elapsed or because of my own shifting awareness, but I remember reading You Shall Know Our Velocity and thinking, “Wow, this is really great.” Then, when I read Eggers’ short story collection, How We Are Hungry, I noticed the overlapping characters and story lines and thought, “He’s such a thorough writer.” To say the least, I was disappointed with A Hologram for the King. The novel is readable, so easily digested, and if we could pare down and separate the story from the agenda, it would stand out as a more admirable example of contemporary literary fiction, but still, it wouldn’t stand up against Eggers’ other works. Perhaps he needs to slow down and re-examine his past before writing the next novel of the future.