Frontier Psychiatrist

Let Them Eat KAEC: A Review of Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King

Posted on: August 15, 2012

Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King

Dave Eggers

An odd scenario has become popular in contemporary storytelling: Americans on the brink of financial meltdown resorting to questionable means to make money. Often this translates to otherwise law-abiding suburban parents who find themselves dealing drugs. Think:Weeds, Breaking Bad, and The Financial Lives of Poets. In his new novel A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers doesn’t follow the herd. Alan Clay, a divorced American in his fifties, is a former Schwinn executive who finds himself in severe debt to friends and former co-workers and pressed to pay his daughter’s college tuition.  Instead of dealing drugs, he finds himself on a business trip with a team of twenty-somethings pitching new technology to the King of Saudi Arabia.

The main setting of the novel is in King Abdullah’s Economic City (KAEC, pronounced similarly to “cake”). The city similar to Dubai, completely man made, with new canals, modern architecture, and transplanted palm trees.  Every day, Clay makes the commute from Jeddah where he is staying, about an hour away. He is told to meet with Karim al-Ahmad. What he does is not quite clear, but he’s supposed to consult with all the vendors giving their pitch to the King. Alas, on day one, the King is not there, nor on days two or three. Waiting for people who aren’t there, not being told why there’s no Wi-Fi, other vendors, when’s lunch or anything else of relevance, it’s as if the King is Godot and Alan is both Vladimir and Estragon.

In fact, Eggers’ whole description of Jeddah and KAEC are quite surreal, not least of all the fact that a Hilton in the middle of Arabia is much like a Hilton anywhere else. Throughout the novel, the recurrence of importance of place, and particularly place and manufacturing, pops its head up. This is mostly due to Clay having formerly worked for Schwinn before the company decided to move production from Chicago to Mississippi to the Far East. His father, a former shoemaker and WWII vet, playing the stereotypical blue-collar-America-number-one stubborn role, was always critical of him. Trying to impress parents seems to be a reoccurring theme among the American protagonists in Eggers’ fiction. This raises the question: have younger generations always felt this inadequate? Or is it that we would rather honor our parents than squander or bastardize their legacies? While universal, the question has particular weight for Eggers: his parents both died from cancer when he was in college,leaving him to raise his eight-year-old brother, as chronicled in his memoir  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, published in 200 and still most well-known book.

This feeling of inadequacy pervades into all realms of Clay’s life. There’s the guilt of his ethical inadequacy, which led to his failure in business and eventually his financial downfall. He is divorced and perpetually writing and rewriting a letter of advice to his daughter. Ironically, he is confident in the advice he gives to his cab driver, the Danish worker he befriends, and the Saudi doctor he sees for a lump on his neck. The lump is almost too obviously a metaphor for his life, a pervasive force sucking out his will to live. He tries self-extraction, but (surprise!) only makes things worse for himself. But this failed self-procedural does lead him to the doctor, suggesting that things can only get to their absolute worst before we finally accept the help of others.

Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King

In a recent interview with Bloomberg, Eggers talks about his inspiration for one of Hologram’s minor characters: an American architect who hadn’t recently designed anything in America. The character says that in the US “there’s not that kind of dreaming happening. It’s on hold.” Certainly for an architect in a post 9/11 world, the very idea of skyscraper is almost taboo. It’s not so much that these dreams are on hold, but that they are stagnant. Their faults have been actualized and we are unclear where to go from there. The implication is that while ideas generally need some catalyst, an older idea to build on, America needs to come up with brand new ideas to redefine American architecture or music or literature. In a way, such a character seems to be code for Eggers’ own genre-defying work.

While  A Hologram for the King is a pleasant (and quick) read filled with Eggers’ signature flat, ironic language, it never digs too deeply below the surface.  Eggers does touch on some of the religious and social aspects of Arabia, but focuses more on the economics of the Middle East. What doesn’t come across is where exactly the author stands on globalization. After reading Hologram, I’m curious to see how KAEC develops (the city is scheduled for completion by 2020) and how this book will be perceived in the future. While it doesn’t try to be as prophetic as say Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, it does give insight into the psyche of an American businessman who supported globalization and unwittingly made himself irrelevant.

Andrew Hertzberg is an FP staff writer. He recently reviewed music, food, and advertisements at Lollapalooza 2012 and  the books In My Home There Is No Sorrow by Rick Bass and Hot Pink by Adam Levin.


2 Responses to "Let Them Eat KAEC: A Review of Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King"

[…] Hertzberg is a staff writer. His recent book reviews include A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers, In My Home There Is No Sorrow by Rick Bass and Hot Pink by Adam Levin. Although he […]

[…] Hertzberg is a staff writer. His recent book reviews include Home by Toni Morrison,A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers, In My Home There Is No Sorrow by Rick Bass and Hot Pink by Adam Levin. Although he […]

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