2012 National Book Award finalist in Fiction: Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King

November 12, 2012 § 1 Comment

– Well, it’s pretty interesting, Dad.  I’m here with Reliant, and we’re pitching an IT system to King Abdullah.  We’ve got this remarkable teleconferencing equipment, and we’ll be doing a presentation to the King himself, a three-dimensional holographic meeting.  One of our reps will be in London but it will look like he’s in the room, with Abdullah –

Silence.

Then: – You know what I’m watching on TV here, Alan?

– No.  What are you watching?

– I’m watching this thing about how a gigantic new bridge in Oakland, California, is being made in China.  Can you imagine?  Now they’re making our goddamned bridges, Alan.  I got to say, I saw everything else coming.  When they closed down Stride Rite, I saw it coming.  When you start shopping out the bikes over there in Taiwan, I saw it coming.  I saw the rest of it coming – toys, electronics, furniture.  Makes sense if you’re some shitass bloodthirsty executive hellbent on hollowing out the economy for his own gain.  All that makes sense.  Nature of the beast.  But the bridges I did not see coming.  By God, we’re having other people make our bridges.  And now you’re in Saudi Arabia, selling a hologram for the pharoahs!  That takes the Cake! (e-book p. 65, Ch. XII)

Globalism confuses quite a few people, when the concept does not terrify them.  Made in ________, a locale most reading this will likely never visit.  Fruits grown a hemisphere away, cheaper than produce from a local farmer.  Outsourcing of jobs, of products, of patents – all of these part and parcel of an international economy that no longer is fully threatened by any single government’s policies.  Only a few people seem to understand their niche in this, only the select seem to have some say as to what products are pitched to others and where these products will be assembled.  For the 99% of the global population that are the workers, the engines of the global economy might as well be on Cloud Cuckooland.

Over the past twelve years, Dave Eggers has written a series of acclaimed fictions and a couple of non-fictions that frequently featured characters who in divergent ways were set adrift in a rapidly changing and often callous world.  In his latest novel, A Hologram for the King, Eggers explores the effects that globalization has had on American business through the experiences of a middle-aged sales executive, Alan Clay, whose experiences trying to sell a prototype holographic IT system to Saudi King Abdullah is in equal parts a Godot-like wait of futility and a vivid depiction of the uncertainties that face American businesses and workers alike.

A Hologram for the King is written from a limited third-person PoV.  There are frequent asides to Clay’s past experience working as a salesman for Schwinn Bikes, before their business collapsed some years ago and the century-old business was liquidated, their name and products being divvied up and sent outside its traditional Chicago base to other countries, where the bike parts could be made cheaper.  In his conversations with his younger co-workers at Reliant, Clay’s growing pessimism regarding American businesses being able to survive in the new international economy of outsourcing and patent licensure  to non-American corporations provides a sobering look into a mindset that more and more Americans, particularly those approaching or passing middle age have developed.  This brave new world does not seem conducive for business – and friendships among business partners – as usual.

For a relatively short novel (barely 230 e-book pages on my iPad), A Hologram for the King contains a lot of character interactions, from the nouveaux riches among the Saudi subjects (a sandal manufacturer and his playboy son and a surgeon who removes a cyst from Clay’s neck late in the novel are but two examples out of many), to a European fellow business traveler who initiates an aborted romance, to others who struggle to understand if the King’s planned King Abdullah’s Economic City (KAEC, pronounced like “cake”) will actually come to fruition outside of Jeddah.  Yet for the most part, these characters and their situations feel too much like symbols for globalization and its positive and not-so-positive aspects rather than fully-fleshed simulacra of human beings.  Even Clay feels like a metaphor for the failing American (business) dream, with his slight stirrings of activity/lust, only to be disappointed by sluggish performance and baggage.  By the novel’s end, there were hints of intriguing characters from Dr. Zahra Hakem and a relative of King Abdullah, but ultimately they were just glimpses of some substantive and only Clay possessed any depth of emotion or character.

A Hologram for the King works well as an extended metaphor for the decline of the United States’ importance in the global economy.  However, it falters when it comes to its characterization and that lack of fully-realized characters robs the novel of some of its impact.  Ultimately, it is a good novel that could have been a great novel if more time had been devoted toward developing characters that were more than representations of the global changes that Eggers wanted to explore.  Compared to other National Book Award finalists in Fiction, A Hologram for the King is a weaker entry for the noticeable flaw mentioned above.

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