Case STudy of the after-the-decline everyman
A Hologram for the King
by Dave Eggers
Review by Jennifer Ruth
Was Ehrenreich right? Did the best and the brightest pull the ladder up after them once they got in the door, as Michele Obama suggested at the Democratic convention in 2012? Maybe. But the nurturing of talent wherever it originates was only one of a number of elements contributing to the prosperity of those decades. It helped, for example, that Europe was decimated by two world wars and much of Asia was impoverished. Other nations could not compete. Should we really lament the fact that, now, some of them can?
It’s hard not to. In his novel A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers’s protagonist Alan Clay loses a lucrative IT deal to an outfit from China. The American and Chinese firms were vying to wire the King of Saudi Arabia’s pet project, an imagined global-elite city conjured out of the resistant material of the desert. Alan is a 54-year-old former Schwinn businessman who offshored production in the 80s and 90s, one of many who hollowed out America’s industrial core. Now, $45,000 in debt, he cannot pay his daughter’s college tuition bill. Alan is not a heartless, profit-greedy entrepreneur who made a bad gamble. He was not someone on the cutting-edge of all the multinational practices that gutted America. He was just someone who went along with all the multinational practices that gutted America. And Eggers does not insist that we care about Alan’s predicament—the reader sometimes gets the impression that Alan himself wouldn’t much care, were it not for his daughter’s endangered future—but we do care. Alan is our after-the-decline Everyman, and it becomes clear that his daughter will be her generation’s Everyman in turn, a person entering adulthood saddled with ruinous debt.
Most of the novel consists of Alan killing time as he awaits the King’s arrival to the half-baked city. Like Kafka’s, Eggers’s world is composed of mystified but intractable hierarchies and inequalities, seemingly rational efficiencies woven into the arbitrary accretions of time and place. In such webs of complexity, the only rule is rule by nobody, which is of course not at all the same as freedom. (It seems hardly worth mentioning the one nominal authority in the novel—the King himself—since nobody ever knows where he is or what he is doing. Characters’ speculations on his intentions are like speculations on the weather: we can predict, but we’re as likely to be wrong as right.) Lonely individuals populate this world, rubbing against one another mostly when they regress into a muted barbarism.
Dave Eggers. The world of his latest novel is composed of mystified but intractable hierarchies and inequalities.
Though less surreal than The Trial, Hologram resembles that novel in its rhythms: banal situation, banal situation, sinister situation, banal situation... The atmosphere is one of boredom and frustration overlaid with shame and regret, a pent-up energy mostly tamped down into apathy, but occasionally threatening a vaguely sexual violence. At one point, Alan opens a door onto a scrum of half-naked Malaysian men fighting over a cracked cell phone. He enters as if he’s Rule of Law and, for a split-second, it looks like the men want him to play that role. But before any judgments can be issued, their rage re-organizes itself, directed at him.
Alan wanders on the periphery of the young team he’s ostensibly leading. Penned in a tent outside the site’s main building, these well-meaning young people play on their computers when the wi-fi is working, nap when it’s not, and, when their objectless energy becomes unbearable, manically make out. Alan periodically checks in with them, but mostly roams the grounds of the not-yet city, looking at vacant luxury condominiums and—in a moment of heavy symbolism—almost falling into a pit fifty feet deep. He is not a man who can “get it done,” but it’s hard to fault him for this when we’re increasingly persuaded that such a person does not exist. (Alan seems to think an earlier generation of men who worked with their hands—who made things—had this magical power, but this often feels more like hapless nostalgia than serious conviction.) All of which is to say that the novel does what we want good literature to do: it captures the conditions of existence in forms the imagination can apprehend. Had Eggers made his protagonist anything other than impotent, wouldn’t that have been cheating? Cheating us of the irremediably hopeless vision we take to be our contemporary reality?
But would it have been a betrayal of art or reality for Eggers to let Alan enjoy himself a little bit more? It definitely sucks to be a used-up and spit-out historical irony. It sucks to be registered by the merciless gaze of the young only when they make an effort, and then primarily as an endearing relic. Eggers gives Alan one young friend—his Saudi driver Yousef—but he suffocates the friendship in Alan’s quiet despair. In a scene late in the novel, when we know Alan should know better, he falls prey to the quintessential American desire for exceptionalism. Sensing an opportunity for heroism among “natives,” he wants to shoot a wolf that has been eating the villagers’ sheep, but fires at a boy instead. Yousef finds this incident so disturbing that he distances himself from Alan.
But there are not only young people in this novel. Alan also encounters the middle-aged. But even among his tribe—the human fall-out of busted marriages and collapsed economies—Alan cannot break through some kind of invisible film to interact meaningfully. A Danish divorcee takes an interest in him, and he obliges her enough to help her climax in a bathtub. He doesn’t mind doing this—he thinks her guttural moans “beautiful”—but feels only a fleeting “stirring” himself.
We are encouraged to believe that a friendship with a Saudi doctor will blossom into something wonderful, but then the two can’t manage to get their physical “parts” to work together. This is frustrating, but I found myself more frustrated when the woman attempts to talk about what’s happening by asking Alan if he is “distracted,” and he answers “maybe.” He had been deeply immersed in their lovemaking, but he draws his business worries over his unreliable body like a fig leaf. Might Eggers, instead, have given us an Alan Clay who rises to the occasion by saying, “No. I’m all yours. It’s only my body that’s letting us down”? This answer would satisfy any woman, and give us momentary relief from the story’s claustrophobic isolation. Ah, two individuals can come together, and not only despite failure, but sometimes because of it! This might have offered Eggers an opportunity to stay true to his vision of American impotence, but made us a little more lively in our abjection. Another way of putting this is to say that A Hologram for the King might have let Alan himself deliver a few of the novel’s courageously honest sentences, instead of only Eggers. In my scenario, Alan would still be the fallen professional-managerial Everyman—the pawn of supra-individual forces—but he’d enjoy the dizzy pleasures of falling (failing) more. At least he’d know he’s not alone. He has plenty of company.
Jennifer Ruth is the author of Novel Professions: Interested Disinterest and the Making of the Professional in the Victorian Novel.