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Our modern mirage.

July 28, 2012

Grim reality though it may be, the global financial crisis has proved to be rich source material for writers. While it’s prompted a huge number of non-fiction books, we’re now starting to see an intriguing trickle of novels that use our current uncertain economic climate as a provocative and poignant fictional backdrop: most recently, John Lanchester’s brilliant Capital addressed the human aftermath of our rapid boom-to-bust spiral with wit and pathos.

A Hologram for the King, American writer and literary wunderkind Dave Eggers’s thoughtful and sensitive new novel, is the latest work to explores the curiosities and contradictions of life in the post-GFC West—perhaps ironically, since it takes place entirely in Saudi Arabia. And it’s not just the GFC that looms large in the narrative background, but the changing face of our global economy, and the slightly terrifying future that we’re creating for ourselves with offshore manufacturing and increased reliance on technology to carry out tasks that people were once employed to perform.

But for all this topical content, A Hologram for the King is a beautifully focused story and a thoughtful character study of an everyman figure who embodies the insecurities of our age.

It’s 2010, and Alan Clay, a struggling businessman in his 50s, arrives in Saudi Arabia in the hope of securing a contract that could restore his faltering equilibrium. Alan and a trio of his much younger associates are due to give a cutting edge holographic presentation to King Abdullah of King Adbullah Economic City (KAEK), which is a kind of Dubai-in-the-making, a partially built empire by the sea full of lush but empty condominiums, shiny high rises, carefully spaced palm trees, and construction sites. The company Alan’s working for, Reliant, wants to provide IT for the entire city; if their bid is successful, Alan can not only pay off his own debts, but pay his daughter Kit’s college tuition, begin repairing the fractured relationship between Kit and her volatile mother, and generally feel less like a useless human being.

Alan believes—like so many of us, despite vast evidence to the contrary—that money will solve not just his financial problems, but his personal ones: and he’s accumulated an impressive load on both counts. After a career in sales and manufacturing that followed the heady upward trajectory of the world’s economy during recent years, Alan now finds himself in the rather awkward position of having orchestrated his own downfall—during his time at iconic American bicycle company, Schwinn, he oversaw the increased outsourcing of labour until he effectively outsourced himself out of a job.

Divorced, insolvent, and practically unemployable, Alan epitomises the kind of crises experienced by so many ordinary Americans—and, indeed, Europeans and Australians—since the great bust of 2008.

Eggers could easily, with this kind of bleak subject matter, have let his novel become a plodding morality tale, or a thinly veiled rant against the injustices of our modern age. But what makes A Hologram for the King so compulsively readable, and so surprisingly uplifting, is the skilful and subtle way Eggers takes us inside Alan’s head, and crafts such a distinct and likeable protagonist. Alan is more than an everyman figure, but, at the same time, his faults and preoccupations are reassuringly familiar: he drastically oversleeps on his first morning in Saudi and ends up arriving in KAEK four hours late; days later, drunk in his hotel room, he attempts—repeatedly and without success—to compose a letter to Kit, with each false start revealing intimate and moving reflections about parenthood, failure, and self-belief; he’s aware of a strange lump on the back of his neck, and even as he convinces himself that it’s a sign of something terrible, he can’t bring himself to see a doctor.

There’s a dry, gentle humour running throughout the novel that leavens its sombre themes—much of this is due to the wonderful presence of Yousef, the young driver Alan hires to drive him to KAEK each morning, and with whom he quickly develops a rapport. Yousef has no illusions about the future of KAEK—‘there’s nothing there’, he tells Alan, ‘it’s already dead’—but his refreshingly cavalier attitude is the perfect ballast for Alan’s mix of desperate hope and weary resignation.

In the background, of course, is the almost mythic figure of the King, and the increasingly fruitless attempts of Alan and his team to present their hologram. The King’s presence is always imminent, but never confirmed—he’ll be here, Alan is assured, but no one can say when. Every day, Alan and his young associates—whom, he knows, see him as rather useless—set up their equipment in a huge, sweltering tent with poor air conditioning and a non-existent WiFi signal, achingly close to the slick offices in the centre of KAEK. Their daily ritual of waiting takes on an almost fable-like quality, with the King an emblem of their desire to succeed—or even just survive—in this uncertain new climate.

Nonetheless, for all that it purportedly represents, Reliant’s fancy hologram is just that: an empty space, just like the lonely stretches of desert that surround the bland, bright, unfinished architecture of KAEK. It’s symbolic, perhaps, of what Alan feels he may have become—a nothing—and of the strange new market we’ve created for ourselves, where our labour is outsourced, and our money has become more of a concept than a reality, tied up in credit ratings and derivatives and houses that won’t sell. ‘The age of machines holding dominion over man had come’, Alan reflects. ‘Most people did not want to make decisions. And too many of the people who could make decisions had decided to cede them to machines.’

But for all these penetrating observations about our world, A Hologram for the King is Alan’s story: it’s about his need, his failure, and his very fumbling human attempt at redemption. Eggers’ finely tuned rendering of Alan’s character, and the familiarity of his plight, are what make this such a meaningful and poignant read. The novel’s well-judged conclusion implies that there are no simple solutions—not for Alan, and not for us.

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