In A Hologram For the King, Dave Eggers latest novel, Alan Clay, a middle-aged American businessman, shows up in Saudi Arabia to pitch a large IT deal to the king of the country.
Eggers' protagonist is on the outs. A divorcee in his mid 50s, carrying plenty of unresolved baggage around his ex-wife, Clay is also a former executive at Schwinn, where he helped outsource the manufacture of bikes to Chinese companies, effectively putting Schwinn out of business. Now, having been out of work for years and on the edge of bankruptcy, Alan has managed to parlay a minor connection to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah to manage a corporate team in presenting a hologram to the king, in their effort to land the contract to wire the new King Abdullah Economic City being developed near the Saudi port city of Jeddah.
A quotation from Samuel Beckett appropriately opens the story, as Alan's odyssey in Saudi Arabia begins to resemble nothing so much as Waiting for Godot, Beckett's absurdist drama in which a couple of characters wait endlessly for another. This is A Hologram For the King. Upon their arrival in King Abdullah Economic City, Alan and his team are shown to a tent where they wile away days staring at laptops. There is effectively no plot in Hologram.
This might be fine - the utter lack of plot or narrative tension - had the novel relied upon other factors to recommend it, but character, description, and the language of the novel are all equally lackluster.
Alan Clay couldn't be more of a sad sack - a bland, white male who, despite his desperate need for success, spends the majority of his time alone in his hotel room, drinking himself into oblivion, worrying the lump on the back of his neck, and making poor attempts at writing to his daughter back in the states. Other characters - the young hotshots that Alan is purportedly leading in this venture - are mere sketches of their possible selves. The one interesting character is Yousef, Clay's cab driver, who spent a year of college in Alabama and who checks his car's wiring for explosives each day, in fear that someone is trying to kill him.
Hologram does have a few moments - trysts with a couple of women , a diplomat and a doctor, who (inexplicably) find Clay fascinating enough to want to sleep with him, pull us briefly from the protagonist's morose reveries. And, toward the novel's end, apropo of nothing, Clay abandons his corporate mission to trek up into the Arabian mountains (is there such a thing?) with Yousef, where he is drawn into a wolf hunt.
I truly wanted to enjoy A Hologram For the King; I had high expectations. The book is beautiful to behold, and the title itself is titillating - Yay! There's going to be a Hologram! And a King! Plus, it's Dave Eggers, for Pete's sake. And I love Dave Eggers. That is to say, I love the idea of Dave Eggers. I certainly love his work with McSweeney's, 826 Valencia, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading series. I loved What is the What, but largely for its historical and social content. So perhaps I love Dave Eggers as an activist; perhaps I love him as a leader of social reform; and perhaps I need to stop expecting so much from his novels.