Monday, January 21, 2013

Sand Castles in the Air

Rated the third best work of fiction published last year by the NY Times, "A Hologram for the King" by Dave Eggers gives us one central character, an "industrialist" to use Alan Clay's word for himself, but actually more of a salesman, who has lost his place in the great American downsizing caused by the bank crash of 2008, loss of American manufacturing to cheaper factories overseas, and the rise of China. He has a daughter, but we don't get to meet her. He has three colleagues on his sales mission to Saudi Arabia, where the entire story takes place, young people so hard to tell apart we can barely remember their names.
So we are pretty much dependent on Alan Clay and the charms of his story as he tries to reverse his decline with a big success in Saudi Arabia to keep us interested. Alan was involved with American manufacturing companies such as Schwinn that made good money for him in the past, but that's all over now. Those who live by the dollar die by the dollar. Alan is broke; his skills unneeded, his contacts eroded.
Ironically globalization, the enemy of American factories, comes to his rescue. Now a consultant, he's been chosen to pitch the King of Saudi Arabia for a very big digital product for the new city that King is building from scratch on the shores of nowhere, the sort of project that happens only in the oil-rich Gulf. The "hologram" of the title is the centerpiece of the pitch -- it's a top of the line high-tech gimmick to catch a king.
The novel starts slowly and annoyed me with its page layout tic of separating the narrative very six or ten lines with a line break, a device conventionally used to indicate a change of place, time, scene or point of view. Here it indicates nothing. The textual breaks seemed intended to stretch the story to novel size; it's packaging over product. The tic is annoying because what we get at first is a lot of nothing much, the trivia of an international business trip that starts badly. An impenetrable Saudi city, a bland new hotel, the office building in the city the king is building -- that all this could be anywhere in the world is part of the point, I suppose, but as atmosphere, scene-setting, story-telling, whatever, it's not very engaging. A worried taxi cab driver in a beat-up car turns into a character, but it takes a while. Alan tells jokes, giving him something to say, since he evidently does not read books or even newspapers. It's impossible for me to imagine a middle-aged American traveling to a foreign city that lacks both English media and booze (technically banned by the kingdom's s puritanical version of Islam) without bringing a single book to read. What did he think he was going to do with himself? Our hero does play his cell phone, placing costly phone calls that either do not end well personally or fail to advance his situation financially.
Yet there must be something appealing about this guy. The taxi driver laughs at his jokes and eventually gives him an in-country experience of the real Saudi Arabia, a village built under a mountain in a place where it appears to Alan that people weren't meant to live -- that turns into the novel's high point. It's the one place in the book where you read on because you have to know what comes next. It also results in a dramatic and convincing low point, both morally and emotionally, for Alan.
And both of the women he meets come on to him sexually, including the Saudi doctor who treats foreign men (against the rules). It is interesting to follow the book's depiction of how a woman in this most repressive of societies, officially at least, manages an affair. Unhappily, Alan cannot manage an affair on, so to speak, his end. So we're left with a hologram, rather than a fleshly encounter in the book's anticlimactic resolution.
In the end I'm not that sympathetic to this character or convinced I should be. He can't pay his daughter's private college tuition, but he appears never to have heard of needs-based financial aid. He has married the wrong person; and now he can't make a commitment to anyone else.
Well, you can always dream. Which makes Alan Clay, I suppose, an American everyman. So is this what we've been reduced to? Trying to impress a king with a high-tech gimmick? I thought we were the country that got rid of kings. Alan keeps on dreaming of the next big score. I think he should come back to the US and try to do something useful -- like, say, organizing a Wal-Mart union.