Dave Eggers’ novel, Hologram for the King,
was the best novel I read in 2012.
The book centers on an American telecom company hoping to make a sale in Saudi Arabia, which requires literally camping out at a prospective artificial city (King Abdul Aziz Economic City) near Jidda on the Red Sea coast. The protagonist, Alan Clay, had made his career earlier in life at an American bicycle manufacturer, but the factories had all been shipped off to China. He rages at one point that it should matter where something is made. He was now trying to sell communications technology abroad, without having the knowledge of technical specifications possessed by his much younger support staff.
Waiting for King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to show up at the planned city to see the holographic pitch prepared for him is a bit like waiting for Godot. In the meantime, Clay gets to know a couple of Saudis. One is a ne’er-do-well young man who serves as his driver and takes him at one point to his father’s vacation home in the hills. He has had an affair and is afraid the woman’s in-laws are planning his murder. Then there is an alluring female physician (Clay is a bit of a hypochondriac).
Clay is made to symbolize a post-industrial America in decline. He is the ultimate victim of globalization, and it renders him somewhat impotent. He doesn’t know whether he will be able to put his daughter through college. His wife had a volcanic temper and had left him. He drinks too much. He goes out into the Middle East not as a conqueror or the confident representative of a superpower colossus but as a supplicant and a curiosity, as someone Saudis are only marginally curious about. He is repeatedly humiliated, intentionally or no.
Eggers makes many fine choices, beginning with setting his novel in Saudi Arabia, since the Gulf oil states exemplify the postmodern condition. Obviously, his Saudi characters are seen through American eyes. But Eggers showed in his nonfiction account, Zeitoun, which had an expatriate Syrian protagonist, that he avoids the banal antinomies of Orientalist stereotype. His characters are fundamentally human, flawed, and unable to achieve their fondest desires.
The style is direct and unpretentious. It is easy to forget that you are reading literary fiction. A hint of danger in various sinister social situations, and the question of whether the sale will go through, create dramatic tension despite the postmodern plot’s refusal to go much of anywhere.
I can’t say much more without risking spoilers. Just to say that I’m confident that anyone who reads this blog regularly and enjoys literary fiction will profit from (I won’t say enjoy, since the novel has many hard truths) this remarkable and profound book.