If you need any proof that “the pen is mightier than the sword,” look no further than Dave Eggers’ work. The talented author, publisher and editor has used his pen to write beautifully about socially conscious causes. What is the What told the story of a displaced Sudanese immigrant, while the powerful Zeitoun chronicled the real-life story of a Syrian Muslim in post-Katrina New Orleans caught in the aftermath of the war on terror.
In his latest book, Eggers chronicles a more diffuse yet more pervasive malaise: the decline of American manufacturing and its toll on the American worker. The American worker in question is Alan Clay, a middle-aged salesman teetering on the brink of financial (and, therefore, emotional) collapse. Deeply in debt after a failed manufacturing experiment in his home state of Massachusetts, Alan is given one last chance. He travels to Saudi Arabia to sell a massive IT contract to the emerging King Abdullah Economic Center (KEAC). Problem is, the king is nowhere to be found.
Everyday, Alan is promised that the king will visit and that Alan can demonstrate his company’s hologram, but the king never shows up. There is nothing to do but wait, bearing the silent criticism of his younger colleagues who know Alan is there only because of a purported connection to the king’s nephew. Back at the hotel, Alan is trying through letters to patch things up between his divorced wife and college-aged daughter. What’s worse, the big growth on the base of his neck is increasingly been bothering him. Alan is convinced it is a cancer eating away at his insides.
As he waits for days on end. slowly Alan ventures out into the countryside with the help of a chauffeur, Yousef, and even gets a tentative taste of romance.
Eggers does a marvelous job with the setting—you can feel the stifling desert heat on every page—and with character development. A Hologram for the King relies mostly just on crisp dialog to move the story forward, but it works remarkably well here. One of the many purposes of quality fiction is to elicit empathy in the reader, and Eggers manages this beautifully. The only part where Eggers falters ever so slightly is toward the very end, when Alan visits the countryside and also strikes up a brief romance with a Saudi Arabian woman doctor. These parts of the book seem a little forced; it’s almost as if Eggers convinced himself that he needed a segment about how “the real Saudis live” and didn’t quite hit the target. Alan’s brief romance with the doctor also seems like a valiant if clumsy effort at trying to portray Saudi women without cliches. These two segments wear their agendas on their sleeve too consciously, and the result is a brave if awkward attempt at dispelling pre-established notions about a people Americans know little about.
Finally, there is Alan Clay. He could easily have devolved into cliche; he does not. Instead, Eggers paints a vibrant portrait of a protagonist trying to make sense of the world unraveling around him. Alan stands in for everyman: his troubles, trials and minor successes feel like our own. Adrift and anchorless in the desert, peddling something vapid, waiting for something to happen, watching the 2007 Red Sox win over and over again. “It was a victory that could not be taken away,” Eggers writes. The one victory that could not be taken away. These days, you take succour where you can find it.
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