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Stay Until You're Sent Away

A Hologram for the King

by Dave Eggers

McSweeney’s Books, June 19, 2012 ($25, 328 pages)

A Hologram for the King, the sixth book from Dave Eggers, bills itself on its back cover as “far from weary, recession-scarred America.” We should be so lucky. The entire novel is loudly weary and recession-scarred in that particularly grating way that seems to say, “I’m making a point here!” The reader cannot help but be annoyed by the lame malaise of Alan Clay, the subject of the narrative, whose only consistent attribute is his propensity for failure. His toothless story is punctuated by nondescript recollections of marital misfortune and the sort of run-of-the-mill examples of cultural difference one might expect from a travel guide. To head off this latter criticism, Eggers mocks travel guides several times in the book, but this gesture is roughly akin to me talking smack in this review about book reviews and local newspapers.

Eggers is famous for his philanthropic work, and rightfully so. In 2002, with Nínive Calegari, he founded 826 Valencia, “a nonprofit writing and tutoring center for youth” that has since spread to Chicago, New York, and Boston, among other cities. Yay. But Eggers is much more famous for his debut, a memoir called A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and this is much less deserved. The book is a difficult mixture of sincere tragedy and the sort of raised-eyebrow, stroked-beard, hipsteristic irony that is about as fun to read as an impromptu street corner crustpunk garbage can solo is to listen to. The title alone is designed to preempt its detractors: You can’t say the book isn’t a heartbreaking work of staggering genius because, after all, he was being ironic, right?

But what A Heartbreaking Work really avoids is any question of the story, of the memoir’s success as a narrative and not just as a depressing bit of ironic insincerity. And this is what A Hologram for the King runs from as well, and with those same tried and true wheels of self-effacement. If A Heartbreaking Work said, “You can’t criticize me, I’ve already criticized myself,” A Hologram for the King says, “Go on, criticize me. I know I’m a failure.” But not exactly. Because Hologram is also full of the self-seriousness that can only accompany the words of someone who wants to tell everyone that he has seen and known the world outside America.

Alan Clay is a middle-aged consultant or something who was largely responsible for the utter collapse of the Schwinn Bicycle Company among other endeavors, including his marriage and several one-off schemes that Eggers barely alights upon. Because Clay once knew the nephew of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, he is chosen to travel with three others to King Abdullah Economic City, a real city that the king is essentially conjuring up out of nothing in the middle of the desert, to sell the services of Reliant, the tech-network-support-infrastructure-something company he works for, using a holographic projector. But Clay is crushed by debt and the bill for his daughter’s undergraduate education (side note: No one ever talks about the possibility of her taking out some goddamn loans), not to mention the entire history of his life, which seems to be composed only of missed opportunities, bad decisions with good intentions, and impotence. Will he nail the presentation? Or will he fail again like his big old failure self? And what of romance? Will an appropriately Westernized brown-skinned woman be able tease an erection out of him? Etc.

This gets tiring quickly, partly because no one likes to hear about someone else’s problems for too long, and partly because Eggers makes us listen to Clay’s problems for a grand total of probably 200 full pages. And next to nothing happens in any real way for the first half of the novel. This is one of the loudest signals that Eggers’s agenda in Hologram is not to write a good novel but to tell the story of an everyman at the epicenter of America’s depression over the last four years. Another red flag is the frustrating recurrence of ham-fisted references to budget cuts, fiscal issues, and outsourcing. Cf. “They told [Charlie] to come back. But no one went to get him. Later the police and firemen said that due to budget cuts, they hadn’t been trained for rescues like this.” Or also for instance, “But Alan…sold bicycles, and did fine, extremely well for a while, until he and others decided to have other people, ten thousand miles away, build the things they sold, and soon left himself with nothing to sell.”

The issue is that all of these things are at the very least mostly true and certainly plausible. For instance, all of the Schwinn stuff is based on the actual fascinating history of the collapse of Schwinn Bicycle. Or also at one point, Alan recalls the time he destroyed his credit score by opening a Banana Republic credit card to get some sort of deal. He did not close the card correctly, probably for the same reasons that it is difficult to delete your Facebook account, but he thought he had, and so he felt justified in throwing out every letter he received from Banana Republic for the next however-many months without opening any of them. Later, when he tried to take out a loan, he was told that his credit score was prohibitively low and, despite years of on-time mortgage payments, etc., the single Banana Republic delinquency had ruined him.

Should he have opened his mail? Of course. But the truth is, this type of thing can and does happen all the time. Eggers’s chief criticism here seems to be that everything is automated and computerized, and that those aspects of the process that aren’t are outsourced into oblivion. And the reader can’t help agreeing that yes, Alan Clay should have been given an opportunity to plead his case, to explain that the whole thing really was just a small mistake. Is it going a bit far to say, “The age of machines holding dominion over man had come,” which is actually what the narrator says on page on page 139? Perhaps. But certainly something is very wrong.

Which is fine, but this is a novel, and as a novel it is not very good. Eggers could have written a great op-ed about this, in which he could have used every example from Alan’s past, and the whole thing would have been lovely and moving and not longer than, let’s say, 20 double-spaced pages. But instead it’s all suspended in a web of halfhearted prose and a story that by its end could be kindly called underwhelming. The best chapter in the book is probably XXIV, during which something finally seems to happen that isn’t only about Clay drinking moonshine alone and savaging the cyst on the back of his neck (and it begins on page 191!). A defender of the book might say, “Yeah, that’s because depression isn’t fun or sexy.” To which I would say, “It’s also apparently quite boring.”

Eggers’s concerns in Hologram are not fictional. I mean that in both senses: His concerns are real, and his concerns have nothing to do with fiction.

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