What makes a book? What makes a writer? I asked these questions, as I finished Dave Eggers’s new novel, A Hologram for the King. While Eggers is neither eloquent nor poetic, he is certainly prosaic and engaging. Reading Eggers’s first few words, I surfaced what felt moments later to find that an hour had passed—I was on page sixty. It was Eggers’s drum-beating clarity, character development, and world building that had me reaching for the corner of each crisp, white page while hiding a beaming reading light from my sleeping wife.
A Hologram for the King takes place in Saudi Arabia and centers on an aging IT consultant, Alan, who is waiting to close a deal that would bring holographic technology to the Kingdom. Alan is a good man, though lonely, and one who, ultimately, finds life transpiring beyond his control. His wife has left, his daughter is distant, and Schwinn—where he perfected salesmanship—has moved to China. He is overweight, out of shape, and has a worrying growth on his neck. A relic in a digital world, he feels like a bloodied prize fighter at the end of a thirteen-round fight, aware that he has lost. The looming question, however, is who, exactly, has Alan been fighting all these years? His ex-wife, his father, globalization—himself? The answer for both the reader and Alan is ambiguous. There are no epiphanies, no moments of clarity. Alan departs as we found him—alone and waiting. Though, in the end, there is hope for Alan, it is both subtle and buried under mounds of inaction.
Let me be clear, I like Alan—a lot. And, to be honest, this is where Eggers shines. He writes with clarity about a man who is living in transition—as the world is living in transition—from industrial to post, from iron to IT. Eggers is clear, straightforward, and unceasing in his prose. Alan is known; Alan is clear. He sold bicycles; he now sells Information Technology, holograms—illusions. And as Alan struggles to understand his new and fragile reality, he broke my heart. Why? Because I wanted him to succeed, to finalize his contract with the King. I wanted him to connect with his daughter, to find meaning. I wanted him to change. I wanted him to accomplish something—anything.
But like so much in Alan’s life, he is unable to accomplish, to act. At one point, Alan is in the countryside with a friend and finds himself, along with his friend’s village, on a wolf-hunting expedition. He so desperately wants to play the hunter and to kill the wolf, to test himself, to fill his unfulfilled life. And when he sees the wolf, he pulls the trigger. He misses, thankfully, because moments later he realizes that it was not the wolf, but a shaggy-haired boy. Yet, even in that, his life is stagnant. There is neither triumph nor tragedy for Alan, only life moving past, acting upon him—impotent.
Eggers writes with Hemingway’s clarity. He nears Dostoyevsky’s ability to plunge into the life of a human. Yet, his brilliance is best displayed in his world development. Through Eggers’s depiction of Saudi Arabia, we see both the beauty and the underbelly. Eggers portrays a world oppressed by Big Brother, a world where everyone knows that someone is watching. So they drink their alcohol out back, behind the outhouse, and in a small garage where the lights are turned down and the blinds are closed. All know; all participate. It is a world so far from the western ideal that it appears both fantastical and clandestine, which makes reading A Hologram for the King the literary equivalent of watching a Wes Anderson film. It borders on the Tenenbaums.
In the end, a strange but believable world is created, characters are developed, and clarity is radiant, but resolution is ethereal. The groundwork is laid for Alan to actualize a better future, but will he? Eggers leaves this for the reader to decide.
So, with the beginning, I end: What makes a book? What makes a writer? Development or resolution? Eloquence or clarity? Or maybe there’s something else, something more, something on which we can’t quite place our finger—something for which false dichotomies fail.