I feel like I’ve grown up with Dave Eggers.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) and You Shall Know Our Velocity! (2002) appealed to my youthful naivete; What is the What (2006) and Zeitoun (2009) my maturing empathy; the Circle (2013) my interest in social media issues and technology (though I disagreed with the simplified, negative message); and his two latest (Your Fathers, Where are They? and the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?  and Heroes of the Frontier ) my quieting hopelessness as I get way too old to have not done anything yet. I keep expecting to hate the next book of his, or find his simplification of issues boring, and yet I always come away feeling simply — comforted. He’s a close friend, far too smart and far too humble for his own good, always happy to spend time with you.
A Hologram for the King harkens back to Eggers’ interest in simplifying important social issues — in environmental and economic resilience, specifically. Alan Clay is Eggers’ American Everyman, a selfish and simple person who just wants to support his family (who, of course, loathes him), teetering on the embarrassment of bankruptcy. He’s succeeded in the 20th-century American dream, which inevitably, in its selfishness and ignorance, ushered in the very collapsing economy that ruined him. Don’t mistake this for Yet Another Novel on the mid-life crisis white guy — its scope is closer to western civilization.
To fulfill the 21st-century equivalent, he’s traveled to Saudi Arabia with the aim of selling IT services to King Abdullah’s nonexistent King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC). Their presentation is directly with the king, but he never shows up. For days and weeks, they’re kept waiting always with a ‘Tomorrow, for sure,’ and whether the king cares one way or the other about the Americans or his KAEC is a bit nebulous (until it’s not). No longer able to export material goods, we’re attempting to export the only thing we can–technology or technological expertise–and failing at that because market fundamentalism and cultural wars and whatever else fuels unsustainable economies.
The proposed city’s as stupid and impossibly near-sighted as it looks: A monument to our desire to dominate the environment. It’s an idea that can’t thrive and won’t ever thrive due to the need for importing everything in order to keep it green–not just like nearby Dubai, but American cities like Phoenix, Arizona, too.
A highlight: Eggers’ characterization is as strong as ever. He has a unique way of capturing the disconnected logic of the everyday, defined by paranoia and self-absorption. E.g., Alan Clay’s day-to-day is plagued by
- rewriting the first few lines of the Letter That Will Change His Daughter’s Life, aka that sad, semi-drunk letter every aging depressed parent writes their children hoping to pass on life lessons they themselves never quite figured out
- worrying about a growth on his neck
- worrying about how said growth would be perceived by others
- experimenting with said growth
- reading too far into his coworkers’ expressions
- poorly applying good — if dated — lessons in salesmanship, e.g., begging for names to create a first-name basis personal connection reads as downright needy and pushy.
Not the most fun person to spend time with, but his worries and fears and fuckups and aspirations all feel real (and relatable) in the most depressing sense of the word. He speaks to the fuckup in all of us, and that’s precisely why I feel so connected to Eggers’ writing. It’s simple, it’s passive — maybe even too much of these things — but it tries really damn hard to make its message accessible.
People worried about our passing over into some robotic state [in the future], but we were so much like robots already, programmed and easy to manipulate. We had buttons, we had circuits, and it could all be mapped and explained, reprogrammed and calibrated. The utter mechanical simplicity of being able to move this oddity, the clitoris, up and down and around, to provoke the greatest pleasure, seemed laughably easy. And so we did it, because it created happiness of some kind. We push the buttons that provide the rewards. Again the greatest use of a human was to be useful. Not to consume, not to watch, but to do something for someone else that improved their life, even for a few minutes.