Book review: A Hologram For The King, by Dave Eggers

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HUGELY acclaimed in its native US, this novel continues its author’s shift away from the densely allusive, hectically self-deconstructing style that made him a star with his 2000 debut, A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius.

A Hologram For The King

Dave Eggers

Hamish Hamilton, £18.99

The style here is purposely flat and straightforward, and the protagonist decisively not a literary hipster type. He’s Alan Clay, a late-fifties melancholic plagued by debt, professional disappointment and a savage ex-wife.

An opportunity arises for Clay to strike it rich via a ­technology contract for a real estate development in Saudi Arabia; it could solve many of his woes, but winning the 
gig depends on making a 
holographic presentation to King Ab­dullah. This makes Clay dependent on flaky younger colleagues, a shaky local tech infrastructure and variable interpretations of Arab hos­pitality.

In his ear, his daughter, whose college tuition he can no longer afford, complains relentlessly about her unstable mother; and his father bemoans the “hollowing out” of the American economy in favour of outsourcing. In his recent memory is the shocking recent suicide of a friend. On the back of his neck is a golfball-sized lump, which he instinctively believes is leaching the hope and energy from him.

The crazed excesses and contradictions of modern global capitalism are a preoccupation of Eggers’ generation of hip literary voices: the corporations who sponsor calendar years in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, giving us, for instance, “The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment”; the corrupt drug companies and energy giants who stalk the novels of Jonathan Franzen. Such dystopian fantasies can seem forced – part of an effort by these male writers to insert some blokey satire into what otherwise might be considered mere relationship soap operas.

Eggers sort of gestures towards the same, with his dead desert setting, Clay’s fraught hologram presentation, and an ironic parable about the “Freedom Glass” for the new World Trade Centre being subcontracted to China. But just as Clay’s hologram is perpetually grounded, so Eggers’ satire has a half-hearted feel; Clay’s leaden misery infects the text just as his efforts to cut off his own weird neck-growth infect his skin. The character comes through clearly, and his travails are often emotionally affecting, but it’s awfully draining hanging out with him. And when the writing stirs itself from blankness it can be kind of bad: over-the-top metaphors (a lighter is “silver and white and tiny like a miniature Cadillac driven by an insect pimp”), dodgy word usage (someone’s lips are “luxurious”), poor syntax (drawings are “by someone who was either Degas or drew dancers just as he did”).

Eggers’ ideas can be distractingly off: at a depraved party, revellers dive into a pool to retrieve pills scattered into the water by the host, a notion that rather overlooks the fact that the whole point of pills is that they dissolve in liquid. It’s strange, this sloppiness. It implies a book written quickly, or perhaps just edited quickly; and yet in other ways, A Hologram For The King, like Clay’s stay in Saudi, seems agonisingly long and slow.

Eggers does construct a world that effectively conveys the soulless mystique of the business end of the Middle East and the United Arab Emirates: the cultural fluidity, the black markets and internal hypocrisies, the absurd wealth and the slave labour. He hits on lovely ways, sometimes, of expressing both Clay’s state of coexistent defeatedness and hope, and the irresistibly symbolic boorishness of Americans abroad. Finding a shell on a beach, Clay is momentarily baffled: “There was no reason for it to be this beautiful.” Beauty has lost its meaning for him, except in the realm of sex – and there, almost inevitably, he’s impotent. One of his trio of younger colleagues, whose uselessness is evoked via their tendency to be asleep most of the time, provides via the acquisition of a new phone a blithe microcosm of her generation’s attitude to the world: “She said she’d looked for a while at the site for a place to toss her old one, and in the end has just thrown it on a mound of debris.” They make an effort. They do. But a small one. And in the end they just add to the debris.

Typical moroseness, perhaps, from a one-time wunderkind now well into middle age. But even if there’s considerable maturity here, and a nice line in wanly ironic observations, it’s a shame that Eggers can’t summon a bit of the verve that made him such a star at the start of his career. After all, anyone who reads books at all has read a fair few woeful allegories about American imperialism and societies sickened by triviality in recent decades.

This book is in fact amazingly similar to the most recent novel by Eggers’s wife, Vendela Vida; her The Lovers had a middle-aged American mourning her mistakes and making crude cultural errors in a foreign land, and it was written in a similarly sullen, greyish style. Perhaps these noted hipsters are trying to show that they’re tricksy enfants terribles no longer; but a novel that makes you feel you’ve aged ten years whilst reading it is failing on certain fronts too. «

Twitter: @HannahJMcGill