Dave Eggers has played an overlarge role in the literary community in the past 15 years, even as his actual writing seemed mostly to exist in the periphery of causes.
He champions several. Eggers fights to increase the literacy and creativity of the nation’s youth through his 826 National writing centers. He continues to build and extend the reach of McSweeney’s, his independent, off-beat publishing house. He sheds light on broader humanitarian issues such as the genocide in Sudan or the social injustices that emerged in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He appears to operate with a selfless passion for the things he feels really matter.
As a result, Eggers has seemed to use his books largely as vehicles to expose certain issues. His 2006 quasi-fictitious work, What is the What, followed real-life Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng. Eggers’s prose brought attention to the atrocities of the genocide Deng endured in his African nation, and the writer subsequently appeared at speaking engagements with his subject. He helped found the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to increasing access to education in Sudan.
Even Eggers’s earlier works, though not tied to specific issues, centered on idealism, delivering a set of certain messages rather than existing purely as literary works of art. Though his debut memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, contained dazzling prose and introduced Eggers as a fresh, innovative new talent—and a model for hipster stylists since—it was not a tightly wrought work. Eggers sometimes let his need to exhaustively detail every aspect of his life story get in the way of crafting a consistently compelling narrative.
He followed A Heartbreaking Work… with You Shall Know Our Velocity, an inspired, if unremarkable, account of two friends traveling the world and whimsically handing out cash to those they felt in need.
For all Eggers has published, You Shall Know Our Velocity stood as his only proper novel until McSweeney’s released A Hologram for the King late last month. Again, his new novel emerged from a topical issue—the effects of the current economic downturn on the businessman whose skills have been rendered obsolete by today’s fast-paced society, technology and the proliferation of outsourced labor.
A Hologram for the King, in a principal difference from previous work, examines a societal condition that cannot be remedied, the byproduct of an insidious set of circumstances. The novel does not indict the banks, the government, or any factor that caused the recession. It concerns itself less with exposing every unjust aspect of the downturn and more with the character of Alan Clay, the novel’s protagonist. Clay exemplifies the middle-aged businessman that the recession has chewed up and spit out.
While A Heartbreaking Work… centered on a hungry generation at the precipice of setting the world on fire with its vision, Clay belongs to a generation already scorched. At 54, Clay heads a team of young go-getters trying to secure a contract to provide IT for King Abdullah Economic City, or KAEC, a nascent Saudi Arabian outpost developers hope to turn into the next Dubai.
To himself and to his younger colleagues, Clay seems “more burden than boon, more harm than good, irrelevant, superfluous to the forward progress of the world.” He only heads the team, whose presentation to the King rests on the strength of a hologram Clay’s company has developed, because he once met the King’s nephew. Clay’s bosses feel that this tissue-thin connection might give their team the edge over competitors.
While many writers strive for a sense of timelessness, Eggers locks readers into the present. He specifically mentions the “BP leak,” the last space shuttle flights, and, above all, the Great Recession, an event that only serves to aggravate Clay’s plentiful problems.
What problems? After being ousted at Schwinn after, ironically, a botched attempt to outsource bicycle labor, Clay made a series of poor investments and accumulated a good deal of debt. He must pay his daughter’s college tuition, as well as mediate her relationship with his troubled ex-wife. He grows desperate for his company to be awarded the KAEC contract, and he convinces himself that the payday for this victory will solve all his problems. On top of everything else—well, at least on top of his neck—he finds a growth. It increasingly annoys and irritates him, and his worries of malignancy metastasize.
One thing stands in the way of the team’s presentation—the King isn’t coming, not anytime soon anyway. Clay and his team stay in Saudi Arabia and wait patiently for the monarch’s arrival. It could happen the next day. It could take months.
While the young members of his team watch movies on laptops in the group’s poorly ventilated “presentation tent,” Clay piddles around KAEC, half-heartedly trying to learn the King’s whereabouts. When not at KAEC, the team holes up in the city of Jeddah, where Clay spends even more time in a frustrating state of existential limbo. He dwells on his irrelevance. He gets into hapless misadventures. He contemplates the growth on his neck and stays up drinking Saudi moonshine while drafting letters to his daughter that he never mails.
A Hologram for the King at first looks like a eulogy for a bygone generation the Great Recession has all but snuffed out. It turns out to be much more a story about the character of Clay himself. The King’s arrival and the hologram presentation slide into the periphery as we discover Clay’s past. We examine his relationships with his father, daughter and ex-wife. We see his struggle to cope with the growing belief that he serves no practical purpose in the modern world.
This ability—and this willingness—to detach the novel’s focus from the larger issues of the economy and to instead portray Alan Clay, the anachronistic businessman, makes this novel, for my money, Eggers’s most finely executed work to date. Eggers hones in on the character’s own flaws and his moving battle to overcome them instead of cataloguing societal injustices.
Narrowing the narrative also allows Eggers to display a far more attuned literary craft than anything we have previously seen from him. The authorial voice of A Heartbreaking Work… dropped jaws with its wit and energy, but in A Hologram for the King, Eggers sculpts a more complete, polished work of art.
Eggers avoids, for example, a previous predilection for longwinded and florid digressions exploring every tributary of a character’s consciousnesses. The prose here feels far more concise and declarative in nature than anything Eggers has written before. The novel’s first paragraph reads, simply: “Alan Clay woke up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It was May 30, 2010. He had spent two days on planes to get there.” Later, describing Alan’s opinion of Brad, one of the young guns working under him, Eggers simply writes: “He did not like Brad.”
This sparseness of language grounds the novel, in a way, and allows moments of poetic brilliance to pop. We read that a road is “inhaled and exhaled” as it traces the coast. Eggers describes how a woman’s lips “contained no ballast within—they were pillows upon pillows.” The writer masterfully picks and chooses his spots to dazzle…most of them, appropriately, during Clay’s most emotionally stirring scenes.
What does it say that Eggers’s most well-developed character to date appears in a book that the author writes in third person—unusual for Eggers—and in which the writer does not exhaustively plumb his protagonist’s psyche? Alan Clay’s arc and, in turn, the novel’s, unfold naturally, gracefully, at their own paces. Eggers’s hand in the matter feels less obvious than in other work. We feel almost as if he set Clay loose in this bizarre scenario, then took a step back and let the pieces fall where they may.
Subtlety like this, authorial invisibility, is one of the hallmarks of the best fiction writers. It’s also an unmistakable moment of evolution for Eggers, an important American writer. Are you among the doubters of Eggers’s ability to write literary fiction? I predict you’ll find A Hologram for the King goes a long way toward convincing you otherwise.
A native of Dallas, Ryan Bort has covered music and culture for KEXP, American Standard Time and Paste. He currently lives in Atlanta.