It's not easy to make a hologram, a construction site and a failed bicycle manufacturer seem elegiac. But that's what Dave Eggers does in his latest novel, "A Hologram for the King."
The protagonist of the novel is Alan Clay, an American businessman working for Reliant who gets sent to Saudi Arabia to win an electricity contract from King Abdullah. Turns out his name might as well be King Godot. The novel takes place over the seemingly endless weeks as Alan's team waits for the king to arrive.
Preoccupied by his inability to pay his daughter's college tuition and haunted by memories of his ex-wife, middle-aged Alan floats through the novel with the self-destructive aimlessness so common to Mr. Eggers' writing. Like an overgrown Judd Apatow character let loose on a global market, Alan boozes (illegally), has a few affairs (illegally) and generally enjoys the underbelly of a conservative Islamic country in order to pass the time.
The backdrop to the novel is the landscape of modern American manufacturing that readers will find familiar. In carefully constructed vignettes, Mr. Eggers departs from the present often to tell the story of Alan's rise from door-to-door salesman to Schwinn bike manufacturer to Reliant pitchman.
Alan is an unapologetically blunt representation of American industry in the age of globalization: He lost his job at Schwinn when the bikes started getting made in China, and he regularly laments the fact that he rendered himself obsolete by making Schwinn too efficient. Alan mourns -- and makes even a young reader nostalgic for -- the loss of physical things to sell amid the growth of a theoretical global financial market.
And Mr. Eggers is working new muscles here. Though he's no stranger to writing about contemporary politics -- his nonfiction account of Abdulrahman Zeitoun's experiences during Hurricane Katrina didn't hesitate to call out the Bush administration on both its War on Terror and its disaster relief policy -- the seamlessness of the novel's narration weaves together a human story and a political context in a straight-faced but deeply emotional manner.
Unlike "Zeitoun" and Mr. Eggers' fictionalization of the Lost Boys of Sudan in "What Is the What," "Hologram" has less of an agenda. The story has its share of bourgeoisie nostalgia, but can't be read merely as an anti-outsourcing manifesto. Instead, it's a careful musing on the state of America in a shrinking world. It's the fiction parallel to Thomas Friedman and Fareed Zakaria's declarations of a changing planet, but it's quieter. It's a reflection, filled with many a pondering deep breath. And it's sure to make its readers ponder nationhood, globalization, and how human lives are wrapped up in it all as well.
Of course, any novel taking on the foreign and exotic territory of Saudi Arabia could fall into some easy traps, and "Hologram" doesn't successfully avoid all of them. It's hard to object to the depiction of a country that most Westerners will never see the inside of, but not everything feels Goldilocks-right in Mr. Eggers' depictions of the country.
Alan's affairs with women play a dangerous game of romanticizing the New Middle East, suggesting that debauchery, drinking and sex are generally universal -- in this case, they're just hiding under the abayas. Luckily, Mr. Eggers doesn't push it quite as far as, say, "Sex and the City 2," and Alan's lovable and bumbling character is a saving grace. He seems to stumble into situations and messes them up more often than he succeeds, which makes Mr. Eggers' depictions of Saudi Arabia feel anecdotal rather than authoritative.
But the good of the novel outweighs its few strike marks. This is Dave Eggers in fine form: political, contemporary, bold, a little bit angry but a lot more heartfelt.
Sanjena Sathian, an English major at Yale University, is a Post-Gazette intern (email@example.com or 412-263-1408).