Alan Clay is in Jeddah for a presentation, he and three significantly younger colleagues presenting the eponymous hologram to the eponymous King, King Abdullah, in King Abdullah’s Economic City (known as KAEK to the nearby locals) – only the economic city is still under construction, the presentation has been shifted to a tent that lacks Wi-Fi and Alan is worrying, about a growth on the back of his neck, about his mounting debts that may yet see him buckle under bankruptcy, about his daughter, about his ex-wife, about his position in the grand scheme of things. As Alan and his team wait for King Abdullah, the days open before them, and suddenly there is time in this world in which there is never time, to consider: to consider the past, to consider the present, to worry, to get drunk in a land that forbids drunkenness, to dally, to wander, to get lost, to tell jokes.
Clay is affable, likable, even when he is drunkenly digging a knife into the back of his neck to try and find out whether the growth that he thinks fogs his mind is a living breathing organism or a hard, senseless piece of gristle. We see him in his hotel room, writing and rewriting (and throwing away) letters to his daughter. We see him wandering around KAEC. We see him forge a friendship with Yousef, a driver employed by the hotel, who is experiencing difficulties as the result of his ex-wife’s new marriage (his ex-wife hating her new marriage, texting her old husband for advice and flirting). There is a sort of DeLillo-ish relationship with a Dutch woman called Hanne that never really gets off the ground (Alan is sexually shut off, thanks possibly to his ex-wife Ruby, a firestarter). Later, he picks up with a local doctor who also has some stories to tell.
Readers of Eggers’ first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, will find certain similarities in A Hologram for the King (and there is a sense in which A Hologram for the King is his first wholly imagined novel since that novel – What is the What occupying a sort of factive, biographical space, propped up by a real person with a real story, The Wild Things using Maurice Sendak’s original as a jumping off point, the novel growing in collaboration with Spike Jonze). There is a restlessness at work here, an unease that is both detached and open-ended. The space we occupy in the novel could go on, could double in size, could continue without end (and, actually, the climax of the book seems to indicate that this is the case). It could even be a dream, a dream of corporate America on the international stage. It is in considering the possibility of the book being a dream that we stumble upon the ever so slight problem with A Hologram for the King.
Eggers is, to my mind, a great writer, with an easy fluid style. He’s like a prose young Jack Nicholson. A Hologram for the King is eminently readable. The character of Alan Clay emerges from that easy fluidity. As such, as he finds himself, waiting for the King, in the tent and the hotel, with the days opening up, clamshell-like, before him, the world a gigantic oyster of possibility, there is none of the corporate urgency that would undoubtedly thrum in his veins (if he truly was a man who had succeeded in the world of business). He receives a phone-call from his boss early in the story, enquiring as to how the presentation is going, when they expect to give it etc – but Clay never returns the call and we never hear from the boss again. There are no emails. There are no phone calls. There is no sense of a world beyond the world in which we inhabit. We know that the deal is a big deal, that Alan’s future is in question, but beyond relaying the details of that future threat, it too is largely left to hang.
Which isn’t to say that Eggers hasn’t researched business – there is a sort of case study quietly unravelled in the background, a job Clay had years before in which he worked for Schwinn, overseeing the transfer of production from the US to China, his relationship with his father irreversibly souring (his father, quite rightly, saying that sending production overseas was a piece of disastrous short-term thinking) – and just that, if we were reading DeLillo or David Foster Wallace, the business element of A Hologram for the King would be more fully imagined, would, to put it bluntly, feel more real. Without the anchor of work, Clay is free to drift – and so he drifts to a castle in the middle of nowhere at Yousef’s behest and there is a tragedy, almost, an ellipse, in which another possible future is glimpsed, in which disgrace hangs opaquely on the horizon, as if the sun had become a watermark. Is there resolution? No. Does A Hologram for the King have a climax? Of sorts. (The King isn’t Godot.) But even as we admit that the novel quietly seeps to its close, we have to admit that, actually, if Eggers had wanted to stick around with Alan a couple of weeks longer, that would’ve been fine. It’s like the novel is a narcotic that slightly dulls your senses and warms your blood. It’s life with the edges off. It’s butter.
Any Cop?: Perhaps strangely, given what we’ve said, we liked A Hologram for the King, and would recommend it. It’s as good a novel as anything he’s done, it just occupies a space that is possibly outside Eggers’ comfort zone (which, if it’s the case, he should be applauded for). So what we lose on the swings we gain on the roundabouts.