JC: As A Hologram for the King opens, Alan Clay has, as many literary protagonists do, arrived at a moment of truth. He’s on a plane to a Middle Eastern Kingdom to sell technology for a city that hasn’t been built, to a King who may or may not show up for the presentation, based on the flimsy premise of having known said King’s nephew briefly twenty years earlier. He’s a financial train wreck, hoping to sell his house so he can afford his daughter’s next year of college tuition, about to be sued by a friend/investor in his last business.
He’s not old, but he’s not the rainmaker he was 10, 20 years ago, either. He’s one flawed deal away from irrelevance, and the young professionals he works with are pretty sure he’s already there. He had to bs his way into this job, and if I were the one doing the hiring, I’m not sure I’d have given it to him. The thing is, life for a working salesman in the United States is a lot harder since the manufacturing left. As Alan’s father indelicately puts it, Alan was one of the idiots who helped it happen. So he’s on his last shot before everything completely unwinds.
At present, Alan is occupied as his technology team sets up their presentation for the King in a desert tent managed by a Kafkaesque bureaucracy and exploring the country in various drunken and gun-toting exploits. Alan also spends a lot of time writing and erasing answers to his daughter’s letters, defending himself and the wife he divorced from her accusations, and reflecting on what might have gone differently.
I love the way Eggers writes Alan. The grand failures of foresight, the joker who doesn’t know when to shut up, the perpetual almost-success: he’s a great character. And I like the way he defends his ex to their daughter. Live long enough and you’ll disappoint too, dear. It happens to all of us, and you can’t live up to the image your children have of you when they’re young, but you’re probably not as bad as they think you are when they’re 20.
DH: It shows up right on the first page of A Hologram for the King. One of small motions of personality that accumulate to construct a life. How did I get to be who I am? It seems like it just happened. But maybe it’s the pile up, like a car wreck, of thousands of tiny decisions, so seemingly inconsequential that we don’t notice them and don’t edit them.
Alan’s in flight and the woman he’s sitting next to, when he pauses to reflect on it…and self-reflection is very rare for Alan…is one of the nicest people he’s run into in years. Maybe for a split second he considers a detour in his itinerary to spend more time with her. But he immediately dismisses the idea. The turns we have into a different life, the gates we could walk through into different gardens, sometimes we willfully don’t notice them. Does Alan have an inside? It’s furtive and buried.
I was going to save this comment for the end of my remarks but I’ll say it now. I noticed it when he’s in King Abdullah’s Economic City, a vast complex of urban sprawl that hasn’t been built yet in a Middle Eastern desert. Alan’s company is bidding for the IT contract. At one point Alan, not knowing how to lead his team of technophiles, who are twenty, thirty years his juniors and actually have marketable skills, he just walks out on them and wanders around the construction site. Finding a huge pit, he climbs into it. To enjoy its coolness? It’s a metaphor of biblical proportions.
I was talking over Eggers with David Gutowski from LargeHearted Boy. I was confessing that I was always put off by him in the past. This sort of “look at me…how hot I am” self-referential attitude that I felt some of his work embodied, I found repellant. And the mutual ass-kissing that I find in some cultural clubs, in which the mediocre find shelter and bogus praise under the wide shoulders of stars…I don’t like. But…as David retorted….he is hot.
In sort of an intermezzo in this three act American tragedy, Alan goes hunting for a mountain wolf that’s been poaching village sheep. He’s befriended his driver, who takes him to his remote home village where Alan, in an act of local courtesy, is allowed to go on the hunt with the guys.
Alan poised on his mountain slope…the guys have staked out a likely territory for their kill. A sheep has wandered out of its shelter and might serve as an easy lure for the wolf. While holding his fire, Alan fantasizes that he is going to be the hero and kill the wolf. Then the guys will worship him as the alpha male.
But Alan is the omega male. He’s the end-of-the-line, the last model of the Schwinn bikes he used to sell, the last amorphous gasp of the American myth of Davy Crockett. He flails around like a wounded quail, going through the motions of being a man…only he isn’t one. Not by the high standards of the American tradition in such things.
JR: I don’t read Eggers, but I broke down and read this one. The last time I tried one of his books was when I read HWOSG, which I threw off a moving train because I needed wings to stay about it’s arrogance. I think it was the New York Times Book review on Eggers that got my interest, as it seemed that Hologram for the King was about a loser. JC describes this story and gives us a great look at just how down on his luck the character of Alan really is. He has nothing to go home to, and nothing going on for him at work. He’s hoping to bring a virtually useless electronic answer to a barren part of the world, which will most likely be obsolete by the time Alan does get it to happen. But getting this “hologram” to happen is probably the most ridiculous thing in a long line of silly ideas. Alan sincerely tries to make every one of his ideas work, that’s why he’s such a good salesman.
Eggers presents the reader with a riddle. Hang around and wait for the King, and maybe the King will show up, but he might not, and even if he does, he might not like the idea Alan is there to sell him. But stay anyway, because odds are he might not like it, but hey, you never know. In the end it’s the not the destination, but Alan’s journey. By the time Alan gets fed up with waiting for the King to show up, he has a boil growing on his shoulder, and he has found a way into the good graces of one of the women who works for the King. Alan isn’t savvy, he has no “game”, and he typically can’t go from one chapter to the next without outwardly worrying about his finances which are so desperate that it would seem to this reader that he should just stay in this Middle Eastern country and wallow in the desert. What is there to go back to? Eggers easily shifts from one bad thing to the next, and can’t quite figure out which thing is worse. His ex -wife that hates him, his daughter that will have to drop out of college because the money ran out, his deep debt, his past failed business, and it was a supreme failure, or his friend that killed himself. Or how he met his wife and what a terrible mistake it was. Alan wishes all of these troubles would go away, but they won’t. They wander his body like a poorly drawn tattoo. He also has trouble sleeping, turns into a zombie, befriends a local cab driver, and in the most obtuse part of the book falls into the local drama that the cab driver wears like a lonely heart on his sleeve.
Alan is a salesman from a bygone era and Eggers is delivering the final point blank headshot to a cliche that is woefully in need of being euthanized. What works in this story? Almost everything. Alan’s love/hate for women is unanimously magnetic. He trusted one once and she fucked him over, with hyperbolic glee. He can’t get it up for the women he does run into, and finally when he does get with a local doctor, you’d think the magic of that setting, her exotic nature and ridiculously sexy touch would bring Alan to a state of vibrating wonderment. It does and it doesn’t. But Alan always seemed like he was on borrowed time and that the carpet would be pulled out from under him at any moment. Alan has the one thing that is universal to all men in sales. The ability to lose all feeling, at any given moment. The trouble is, his life is filled with moments where he doesn’t care, or it just seems useless to care because everything is going to turn to shit anyway so why get emotionally charged up?
There are no happy endings in life, and Eggers has had his share of bad breaks. I don’t care for his literary politics, or the blossoming cult that he and his friends have created. The wall around that castle is high and slippery. To be perfectly honest, this is the best book I’ve read in years, and for that, I forgive him all injustices imagined or real.