Americans are born knowing everything and nothing. Born moving forward, quickly, or thinking they are.
And there you have it, another classic Dave Eggers soundbite, this one from his newest novel A Hologram for the King. This statement is about as transparent as Eggers gets in his critique of modern American culture throughout the engaging new book — and therefore the least jarring, since his other more subtle critiques seem to have a more caustic punch. Americans, beware: The rest of the novel is thick with satire, likely to shame even the most optimistic and oblivious. If you finish it and feel good about being American, then you’re not reading closely enough.
The story follows Alan Clay, a 54-year-old divorcee trying to pay for his daughter’s college tuition with an increasingly dwindling salary from his failing work as an independent IT consultant. Clay puts all his eggs in the King Abdullah Economic City (or KAEC) basket, a vaguely defined and disorganized new project spearheaded by the elusive King Abdullah. Clay and his team of three younger coworkers are sent to a tent outside the KAEC compound to wait around, without food or (gasp!) Wi-Fi. The King’s arrival is unknown, and the team wallows in uncertainty and boredom for days.
Meanwhile, Clay develops a growth on the back of his neck and self-diagnoses it as a cancerous tumor. He plays with it, worries about it and even sticks a knife in it to see if it will bleed in his Hilton hotel room. Eventually, Clay goes to a Saudi Arabian hospital to get the growth checked out, where he encounters a pretty doctor who tells him the growth is benign. “If there was no tumor attached to his spine, dragging him to these recent depths,” Eggers writes, “then what was the explanation?”
Through Clay’s story, Eggers manages to comment substantively on America’s current economic crisis with subtlety and insight. Clay, formerly fairly successful, is brought down by foreign business and his own crippling anxiety. “By God,” his father tells him over the phone, “we’re having other people make our bridges. And now you’re in Saudi Arabia, selling a hologram to the pharaohs. That takes the cake!” Though Clay tries to convince himself of his importance, he — and the reader —knows that he is ultimately useless, and his venture a failure. “He was an American businessman,” he tries telling himself. “He was not ashamed. He could be better than a fool.” But I’m not giving any plot points away here: It’s quite clear from the beginning that, no, he can’t be better than a fool. And the more he tries not to be, the more he grows into one.
Even more than the critique on foreign business, I personally enjoyed the plotline about Clay’s neck growth. The imaginary cancer consumes him; indeed, Eggers comments brilliantly on America’s ever-increasing population of self-diagnosed hypochondriacs — a product, Eggers seems to suggest, of an already-existing American narcissism that is exacerbated even more by the Internet age. After Clay’s growth is diagnosed as benign, he is almost disappointed. "Then why am I so depressed?" he wonders.
A Hologram for the King is sparsely written, with dashes and full paragraph breaks beginning all dialogue in what has come to be known as classic Eggers style. Personally, I’m not a fan of it. I think that Eggers has earned his explosive popularity. Though I don’t connect with his writing style, the content I believe to be worthwhile. His extracurricular projects in addition to being a novelist — literary journals, 826 National, film scripts — are admirable. Eggers is one of the few novelists that you can expect to read in your advanced college seminar English class and find for sale at Urban Outfitters at the same time, next to Tattoo a Banana. His writing is unremarkable, but his biting social commentary makes up for it.
“Now, though,” Eggers writes, “[Alan Clay] had nothing to teach these people. They could set up a hologram in a tent in the desert, while he’d arrived three hours late and wouldn’t know where to plug the thing in.” Herein is an example of Clay’s self-awareness of his own glaring inadequacies. If Clay is a general template for the modern American businessman, you can bet that American manufacturers are going to continue to be left in the tent desperate for a Wi-Fi connection, while the Chinese guys next door get the deal.