Why Dave Eggers’s latest novel, A Hologram for the King, is the next Great American Novel.
Every American novelist entertains thoughts of writing the Great American Novel—a book that captures the current state of the union, yet is timeless enough that it might enlighten future generations of readers.
Our southern neighbours produce many stellar works of fiction, but the truly great American novels are those whose titles, like the names of presidents, become a cue to a historical moment. The Great Gatsby: the burgeoning wealth and materialism of the Jazz Age; Revolutionary Road: the souring of the postwar suburban dream; American Psycho: the brutal ambition of the 1980s; Infinite Jest: the consumerism and information overload of the digital age.
At the risk of being premature, I would like to add Dave Eggers’s latest novel, A Hologram for the King, to this rarefied list. It’s a wry, acutely perceptive book that I believe people will return to years from now to understand this gruelling chapter in the life of the U.S. republic.
The plot focuses on Alan Clay, a middle-aged sales exec for an American tech firm looking to score a lucrative IT contract in Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC). Thanks to a passing acquaintance with a younger member of the Saudi royal family, Alan has been promised an audience with the king in KAEC. For Alan, winning this contract would mean a staggering commission that would enable him to erase his debts, send his daughter to university, and salvage his self-worth.
Yet problems ensue. Alan arrives at the convention centre in KAEC only to learn that he and his colleagues are expected to hole up in a large tent outside the building. Worse, no one actually knows when King Abdullah is supposed to show up. And so Alan shuttles back and forth every night from KAEC to his hotel in Jeddah, trapped in his own version of Waiting for Godot.
It’s been more than a decade since Eggers’s first book, the clever if cutesy novel-cum-autobiography A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which presaged the memoir craze and marked him as the cool kid of contemporary lit. Rather than continue in that self-indulgent vein, Eggers’s subsequent work has demonstrated a profound curiosity about the world, as well as a pronounced social conscience. In 2006, for example, he published What Is the What, a work of creative non-fiction about a survivor of the second Sudanese civil war that won France’s prestigious Prix Médicis. And his 2009 book, Zeitoun, told the real-life story of a diligent Syrian-American who survived Hurricane Katrina but was detained as a suspected terrorist.
A Hologram for the King may be a personal redemption tale, but Eggers’s greater concern is the state of America. Like most of the Great American Novelists, he challenges two enduring myths. The first is the American Dream, the misty-eyed notion that hard work and determination are all you need to realize your earthly potential. In truth, the dream can vanish as a result of circumstance, prejudice, or bad luck—Alan experiences at least two of these hardships in his quest for a big payday in Saudi Arabia. The second myth is America’s manifest destiny, i.e. its god-given directive to expand its reach. The U.S. may have been a formidable economic power in the 20th century, but it’s faltering now. While stewing in his suite in Jeddah, Alan reflects on his previous job at Schwinn, the Chicago company that was once the world’s premier manufacturer of bicycles. As a result of poor management and outsourcing, Schwinn collapsed and was bought up at a bankruptcy auction—another U.S. casualty of globalization, the great equalizer.
A Hologram for the King is a bracing read in light of the current U.S. election campaign. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney paper over the weaknesses of the U.S. economy by touting America’s enterprising spirit. Sure, that spirit built companies like Ford and Apple, but it was also responsible for the mortgage manipulations that led to the global crash of 2008. And some of the strategies that have increased U.S. profits—like offshore manufacturing—have also reduced American jobs and empowered competing economies like China and India.
In many ways, A Hologram for the King is a book about a nation’s self-delusion. As Alan puts it, “Americans are born knowing everything and nothing. Born moving forward, quickly, or thinking they are.”