Although I initially intended to read Dave Eggers’ “The Circle” first (rumored to be quite intriguing), I ended up with another of his books, “A Hologram for the King.”
I remember in 2016 a film based on this book was released, starring Tom Hanks in the lead role. However, I didn’t hear much praise for this film. In fact, it’s said to be one of Tom Hanks’ less successful movies. Still, maybe one day I’ll push myself to watch it.
But is the novel of “dubious quality”?
Luckily, it’s not. 🙂
American businessman Alan Clay arrives in Saudi Arabia intending to demonstrate IT infrastructure to King Abdullah, who is building a magnificent future city in the desert – the “King Abdullah Economic City” (hereinafter referred to as KAEC).
After some wandering in the desert, Alan finally reaches the infamous KAEC and finds a city only halfway (or perhaps more accurately, seventy-five percent) built. Alan, along with three team members who are supposed to help him prepare the presentation, is housed in a tent with a broken air conditioner and poor Wi-Fi. Alan struggles for better conditions for his team, but as days and weeks pass, the only clear thing is that everyone smiles at him and promises better circumstances.
And the king never shows up.
Now, you might wonder, why does a successful American businessman endure such conditions, and why hasn’t he told the king and his entourage to shove off with their camels and return as a dignified business class traveler to America, in search of a new multi million-dollar project?
Because Alan Clay is the perfect metaphor for contemporary American society, which, however, fails to keep up with some global changes.
Alan is an experienced middle-aged businessman. But, he needs this project to succeed. A half-million-dollar commission would allow him to pay off debts, fund his daughter’s education, and maybe start his own business with the remaining money.
So, Alan is in debt, has several failed business ventures behind him, tries to maintain some balance between his daughter and ex-wife, and has come to the back of beyond to sell something that might be built if it appeals to a man who never seems to appear.
Yes… I would say his life is somewhat in disarray.
While reading the novel, we can’t help but feel sympathy for Alan, watching him through his varied interactions with people in Arabia, whether it’s his friendship with Yusuf (an Arab who occasionally drives him to KAEC), filled with jokes and discussions about love problems. We understand his view of women through, ahem, interactions with Hanna from Finland and an Arabian doctor Hakim. Through his team, Alan realizes that he represents “obsolete technology” (though they, of course, would never tell him that). Especially Alan’s realization that he can’t shake the feeling that his Arabian business intermediaries are drawing him into a world of illusions and deceptions regarding this business. And of course, when you’re so far in an unknown world, you can’t help but spend moments of loneliness in reminiscence and reevaluation of the past. About his career and splendid bikes, his relationship with his father, his marriage to (now ex-wife) passionate Ruby.
Alan is also the intermediary in the shaky relationship between his daughter Kitty and ex-wife Ruby. During his stay in Arabia, he tries several times to write a letter to Kitty, but always ends up abandoning the idea, aware that he must be careful about what he writes regarding her mother, as he too wishes for them to have a normal relationship.
And King Abdullah is nowhere to be seen for weeks.
The entire novel exudes a sort of Hemingway-Kafkaesque aroma, wrapped in a modern style of writing. And I couldn’t escape the impression that the whole novel is a big, deliberate analogy to Beckett’s work “Waiting for Abdullah”, errr… “Waiting for Godot”.
If the mention of Beckett, Kafka, and Hemingway makes you raise an eyebrow and think that this is some tedious novel to read, you can relax. The novel is very well-written and modern. I myself was surprised by how quickly I read it. I was eager to see what would happen to Alan next, who he would meet interestingly, whether King Abdullah would finally appear, and whether the story would have a happy ending.
Maybe you remember me mentioning that Alan is also a metaphor for contemporary American society. Eggers hits the nail on the head about where America stands in the global economy. Read the novel, and you’ll see. We all know what “Apple” is, the brand and quality it brings, as well as the price that accompanies that name. But, we also know what “Xiaomi” can offer today… you get it?
All in all, “A Hologram for the King” is a touching and somewhat sad story about a man who went to a contradictory country, in search of something that could be his salvation, and who, whether he likes it or not, agrees to be led through illusion and endless promises. This is also a story about how the past forces a man to reevaluate his actions, but also how those very past actions prevent us from enjoying the present moment.
I enjoyed reading this novel and hope to soon have the opportunity to read another of Eggers’ works, such as “The Circle.” Indeed, he is a popular and award-winning author for a reason.
This novel is best described by a quote on the back cover:
“A brilliant tale of the downfall of the American dream and the global changes that are irreversibly altering yesterday’s rules of the game”.
Question for dear readers: Do you think America is gradually losing the race with the rest of the world, primarily the East?
(Originally reviewed: 10/06/2018)