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Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Hologram For The King: Waiting for Abdullah

There's a very good reason that the world of business consulting is under-represented in literary fiction. If "interesting" is Tokyo, tales of "win-win" and "streamlined synergies" are London. But that didn't stop Dave Eggers from making his main character of his new novel, A Hologram for the King, exactly the kind of business bonehead whose natural habitat is the airport hotel bar.

Eggers' novel is like an Office Space on downers. It's better than you'd expect a story about business consulting or sales to be, but it still doesn't exactly "meet its fourth quarter projections."

Alan Clay, a former executive at Schwinn, who has failed trying to start his own bicycle business, is now working as a consultant to try to pay his debts and make ends meet. Alan parlays a (tenuous) relationship with King Abdullah of Saudia Arabia's nephew to convince an IT company to send him and a team of young go-getters to the Kingdom to pitch IT for King Abdullah's newest pet project — a city rising from the desert called King Abdullah Economic City. (This is a real thing. You can read about it here.)

But it soon becomes clear that business in Saudi Arabia isn't conducted as it is here in the U.S., and Alan has to wait several weeks for the King (lots of other reviewers have compared this aspect of the story to Beckett's Waiting for Godot, if that helps), passing the time by drinking by himself in his hotel room, having a tryst with a Danish woman, hunting wolves (what?!), and worrying about the lump on his neck he's sure is cancer.

Along the way, we get several little anecdotes about China taking over the world — and how China's less-than-ethical business practices is pushing it past we stalwart Americans. Yes, doing business in Saudia Arabia is infinitely frustrating, but is it better or worse than the business environment in America, where a job you've been at for 30 years can be outsourced on a whim?

Eggers writes in the same sparse, unadorned prose he used in Zeitoun. In Zeitoun, the "Hemingway impression" worked really well to chronicle that emotionally charged issue without overt editorializing. The story stood for itself. With this novel, however, while the issue of outsourcing is equally urgent to many Americans (and the novel itself is a sort of allegory or parable or something else where the story isn't the whole story), it doesn't quite have the same emotional punch as racism and racial profiling. So the writing (and, hence, the story) just feels flat, and fairly uninteresting — just like our protagonist Alan (who, even when he tries to do interesting things, doesn't even seem like he's that interested).

So, while I've loved everything else I've ever read of Eggers', this I wasn't completely a fan of — but the uniqueness of the story (who would've thought to tell a story about a middle aged white guy trying to sell IT in Saudia Arabia?!) and the side anecdotes nearly save the novel, but not quite. Finally, it's worth noting that this is one of the more attractive hard cover novels I've ever owned — it's worth buying, just as a collectors item. Rating: 3 stars.


7 comments:

  1. I love Eggers, but this one does sound kind of un-Eggers. It does sound like something I would like though, and the book itself is beautiful. Did you like You Shall Know our Velocity? That's the one I wasn't much of a fan of.

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    1. It definitely has the political undertones that have characterized Eggers work of-late (What Is The What and Zeitoun), but they're certainly not as "in your face" as in those novels (both of which I loved). I haven't read Velocity - but your opinion of it seems to be the consensus.

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  2. I agree with most of your assessment here, but I did find that Alan warmed on me a little towards the end of the novel. Eggers's criticism of American companies (their lack of introspection, their manipulation of the consumer, their short-sightedness) that is personified in Alan in the beginning of the novel wears away and he seems much more honestly human. But the thinly-veiled allegories (the coin-flip, the CIA/Wolf hunt, the...ahem... performance failures on Alan's part) are too didactic to be enjoyable. I've only read a little of Eggers (about half of What is the What, and a few pages of A Heartbreaking Work). Can you recommend anything else? Is Zeitoun a better version of this novel, as your review seems to indicate?

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    1. Zeitoun is my favorite Eggers novel - but be careful. It'll make you angry. And that's why I love it - that the same sparse prose used here tells such a rage-inducing and important story. Here, Alan just didn't seem important - even as a representation of a "class" of people.

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  3. I have to disagree, probably based on my age and life experience. Over the past several years I've watched my friends struggle with Alan's issues: loss of longtime employment with little hope of finding ANY new job, let alone one similar to the one you had; disappointing yourself and your children when you can't provide for college or keep other promises you've made; a sense that it's all been in vain and you're a total failure. My heart ached for Alan, his disorientation, his ennui, his desperation. I thought Eggars was brilliant for not over-sentimentalizing it. Alan behaved as many middle-aged men have during this difficult time. I had a lot of compassion for him and thought the book portrayed his stage of life quite accurately.

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    1. That is a fair point, well made. You've actually made me consider the novel a bit differently than I had before. I suppose even if it is realistic, to me, perhaps based on my age and life experience, it still didn't ring as exactly riveting watching Alan struggle.

      But thanks for a tremendous comment!

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  4. I recently read this book when I was living a really hard time in my life. I could relate to Alan on so many levels, it made me forgot about the troubles of my life for a while. Dave Eggers has this profound way of writing with such sentiment, and a genuine heart. He has taken a situation that could happen to any American businessman and personalized it with eloquence and grace. He writes books like this and it confirms my admiration for him.

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