It is surprising to note that A Hologram for the King is only Dave Eggers’ third novel. Given that his second, the excellent What is the What, was a biographical work based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng, it may even be said to only really be his sophomore effort. This is surprising because, since Eggers came to prominence both as the founder of McSweeneys and as the author of the memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), he has written a number of bestselling books. It is just that until A Hologram for the King, only one of them has been a straight-ahead novel.
That book, You Shall Know Our Velocity (2002), came as something of a letdown after the exuberant and often devastatingly accurate prose of AHWOSG. Somehow the plot felt a little clunky. Somehow the observations were less unerring. Somehow the metaphors erred more towards the clichéd rather than to the startling, mirror-to-a-generationisms that had so characterised AHWOSG. And somehow, of course, it lacked that sprinkle of magic that makes invented worlds believable.
These are problems that resurface in A Hologram for the King which, while undoubtedly being a more successful novel than Velocity, is almost certainly his weakest work since that book. All of which begs the question: is Eggers really a novelist at all? Would he not, like his most obvious forebear, Tom Wolfe, be much better suited to sticking to writing creative non-fiction?
In his introduction to the era-defining creative non-fiction anthology, The New Journalism (1973), Tom Wolfe spoke convincingly about how that medium had the potential to be every bit as important, and perhaps more so, than fiction. Bearing testament to this, what followed was a collection of some of the fizziest, most downright exciting writing ever committed to the page. Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, Michael Herr, Gay Talese, Studs Terkel … the list goes on. And that is without mentioning the extract from Wolfe’s own, superlative The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test (1968), a book based around the time he spent with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.
Of course, since those heady days, Wolfe has spent most of his time writing gigantic, Dickens-esque, wannabe-Great-American-Novels. Books which do not, put frankly, make the best use of his talents. Books which ignore the irreverent, punk spirit of his younger self and wholeheartedly try to place themselves within the canon of the literary greats – a self-defeating exercise for anyone.
You feel there is something of this misguided ambition at work in A Hologram for the King, which unequivocally sets out its stall as a state of the nation address. Set in the King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia, it features an American Everyman by the name of Alan Clay, who has been sent to sell new holographic technology to King Abdullah himself.
The novel takes place when KAEC was still in its early stages of development and Clay and his young team arrive at a vast building site with desert on one side and the sea on the other. It is the perfect setting for a novel concerned with impotence and inconsequentiality and one which, furthermore, begins with an ironic quote from Samuel Beckett, ‘It is not every day that we are needed.’
And indeed it is not. Day after day Clay and his team are forced to wait in a ridiculous white tent away from the few offices that have actually been built. A ridiculous white tent which, until Clay makes a stand, has neither air conditioning, food nor wi-fi. Considering that wi-fi is essential to the team’s holographic presentation, which is to feature a colleague who is physically in the US presenting on stage in KAEC, this is clearly absurd and the novel actively courts a by-turns-absurdist, by-turns-dreamlike, tone.
If that sounds suggestive of Kafka then, yes, there are echoes throughout but only in the sense that it is impossible to write about the interfusing of dreams and reality without echoing Kafka. Mostly Hologram just reads like a Dave Eggers book, which is a tribute to how distinctive and instantly recognizable his voice has become. There are times, however, when this can prove to be more of a hindrance than a blessing, such as in the case of Clay’s Saudi friend, Yousef, who, with his ‘like’s’ and his ‘totally’s’, sounds like a thirty-something generation x-er, straight off the pages of AHWOSG. This serves to compound the feeling that Eggers perhaps hasn’t imagined his subject deeply enough in order for it to be truly convincing. The book is made up of short paragraphs and short chapters, all of which contribute towards a great deal of physical white space in the book. This is clearly intended to be perceived as a visual illustration of both the desert and Clay’s isolation. However, it can also feel symptomatic of Eggers not having enough to say about his very pertinent subject matter. The raft of abrupt, philosophical-seeming sentence-endings also compounds this.
Part of the problem is also that everything is a little bit too overt. Clay used to work for the American bicycle firm, Schwinn, and helped outsource the firm’s entire manufacturing process to China; a move so successful that both he and even Schwinn itself eventually became expendable. He finds himself divorced and trying to make one last big pay day in order to be able to continue to afford his daughter’s expensive college fees. Hence the trip to KAEC to sell a hologram to the King; that hologram, of course, neatly suggesting that Americans don’t actually make anything physical anymore; that, these days, they literally sell chimeras. But Clay’s (for which, read America’s) previous actions, have come back to haunt him and his stock at KAEC is not what it might once have been. When the Chinese businessmen arrive at the novel’s close they are directly ushered into the main building, not a ridiculous white tent, and they have clearly been pre-notified of King Abdullah’s arrival because he too arrives soon after (while Clay and his team have been kept waiting interminable weeks). And, as though pre-arranged, the Chinese businessmen get the contract for the hologram because their offer is around half the price of what Alan thought was an unbetter-able offer.
As a parable of America as a fading superpower this is, while somewhat simplistic, pertinent enough but it has the unfortunate effect of making Eggers’ characters and, most damagingly, the central character of Clay (who incidentally yearns to build stone walls), very often feel more like ciphers than real living human beings. Hologram is a novel full of ideas and with a great deal of potential but it is almost as though all the thought and research that has gone into it has been devoted to its architecture and its meaning at the expense of its feeling. The art of fully imagining what it is like to be someone else is what sprinkles a text with the necessary magic that makes it believable to the reader, and that is something which Eggers too frequently fails to do here. Perhaps this is why, like Tom Wolfe before him, he is such a sensational exponent of creative non-fiction, while being a more or less mediocre novelist. Because there is little doubt that his non-fiction works teem with the necessary deep imagining. Perhaps, then, the world is fantastical and raw and beautiful and awful enough as it is for Dave Eggers and there is no need for him to invent a fictional universe.