Books

Dave and the Holograms

America, Saudi Arabia, and Dave Eggers' Hologram for the King

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ALAN CLAY is an American. He's white and 54—"old enough to die without causing too much consternation." He's $128,000 in debt and unable to pay for his daughter's college. There's an ominous growth on the back of his neck. And he's profoundly out of place in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As a representative for a technology firm that hopes to win an IT contract in the largely yet-to-be-built King Abdullah Economic City, Alan spends his days waiting to make a presentation to King Abdullah. If all goes well, he'll show off the firm's bleeding-edge holographic conferencing tech, then seal the deal with a handshake—casually mentioning that, back in the mid-'90s, he knew the king's nephew.

This is all that Alan has to offer, and it is not enough. A former salesman and entrepreneur, he's now part of a globalized economy where everything is made cheaper overseas, constant connectivity means "any silence of more than a few hours provokes apocalyptic thoughts," and face-to-face contact counts for nothing. Alan is a dinosaur, and he knows it: "How could he have predicted the world losing interest in people like him?"

A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers' first fully original novel since 2003's You Shall Know Our Velocity, reads fast and clear, with clean, stripped-down prose and a tone at once mournful and darkly amused. Pages flip by even when not much happens: Alan waits for the king; Alan befriends Yousef, his local driver, who has to check his engine for a car bomb whenever he turns it on; Alan gets drunk on illegal booze secreted to him by other expatriates, all of whom hope to make good in the Economic City—a city that, according to Yousef and just about everyone else who lives nearby, will never actually be finished. "It could be a good life someday," a rich local tells Alan as they sit in one of the Economic City's massive, unfinished, largely vacant condo buildings. "But I fear the will is not here to finish the job."

Everyone in Hologram looks to the future—when cities will rise from deserts, when holograms will shrink the world even more, when money will appear and solve their problems. But Hologram's aching mood is less optimistic and more funereal. It's not that this world is changing, or that it will change. The world already changed, and now everyone, whether they like it or not, is tasked with figuring out how—or if—they can adapt.

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