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A Hologram for the King: A Novel
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on June 6, 2014
I love Dave Eggers. I certainly love his work in "The Best American Nonrequired Reading" series. I loved "What is the What", and I enjoyed "The Circle" for its attempt to expose, if not discredit our business ethos in America (and abroad). I enjoy Dave Eggers' infusion of significant historical and social content. I love Dave Eggers as an activist and a leader of social reform. Most of all I love Dave Eggers because of his ability to write. Dare I say that twenty years from now, he may be heralded as one of (if not The) voice and conscience of his generation.

That being stated, I think that "A Hologram for the King" from a purely artistic standpoint is his greatest accomplishment to date. "A Hologram" should be compared (favorably I might add) to Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" and to Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman". "A Hologram" is better written than either of them. There is virtually no plot, and yet like most of Eggers' other writing, I was unable to put "A Hologram" down.

Alan Clay is the protagonist in "A Hologram", a character whom I found to be more interesting, and better developed than Willy Loman. Alan Clay is a middle-aged American businessman who shows up in Saudi Arabia to pitch a large IT deal to the king of the country. From the outset, Clay is hoping to change the terrible luck that has surrounded him for years . A divorcee in his mid 50s, Clay has many unresolved family issues, particularly involving his ex-wife, Clay is also a former Schwinn bicycle executive, where he was responsible for helping the company to outsource the manufacturing of its bikes to the Chinese, effectively putting Schwinn out of business. At present, Clay has been without work for a number of years and is teetering on the edge of personal bankruptcy. Alan has managed to convert a minor connection to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah into a presentation to build a hologram for the king in hopes of landing an enormous contract to wire the new King Abdullah Economic City that is being built near the Saudi port city of Jeddah. Clay has somehow convinced the "guys from corporate" (think AT&T, Verizon, etc.) to partner with him for this mammoth Saudi contract. Upon their arrival in King Abdullah Economic City, Alan and his team are shown to a tent where they are to pass the hours and days waiting for the King to arrive.

Alan Clay is the quintessential "snake-bit" salesman who is always one deal away from making it big. Despite Clay's desperate need to make this opportunity work, he is uncomfortable sitting with the gang from corporate under the tent in the sweltering Saudi heat, as they quietly bang away at their computers and check their other IT tools like their I-phone and I-pads. Clay looks and feels out of place- he is an outsider even for his own deal. Consequently, he retreats to his hotel room, where he spends the majority of his time alone, drinking away his sorrows and anxieties. Eggers is at his best while Clay worries incessantly about a lump that he finds on the back of his neck, conjuring up various ways that he might ultimately suffer horribly and then die from his lump. Clay meets a variety of people while endlessly waiting for the king to arrive. Clay meets a cab driver by the name of Yousef who spent a year in college in Alabama, and passes his time by checking the car's wiring for explosives each day, in fear that someone is trying to kill him.

Spoiler alert: Toward the end of the novel, Clay abandons his "big" corporate opportunity with the King in order to go on a hiking expedition into the Arabian Mountains with Yousef with they are drawn into a wolf hunt.

"A Hologram for the King" is one of the best novels that I have read in the last several years, and I anxiously await everything and anything that Dave Eggers produces.
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on June 21, 2017
Great story set in an exotic but somehow mundane locale. Not a dull scene in the book and it's absolutely hilarious in places. Interesting insights into Saudi royals and professionals, pretty topical right now.
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on May 17, 2013
This is the story of Alan Clay who travels to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in May, 2010. He is the proprietor of a small, failing consulting firm run from his home in the U.S., but has recently been staked by Reliant, the largest IT supplier in the world, to sell a contract to King Abdullah. Clay, a salesman by nature, has brought three young assistants who will present a holographic teleconference to impress the king with their skills in telecommunications. Clay is 54 and feels that his life has been a series of foolish decisions, hasn't planned well, hadn't had courage when he needed it. This could be his last chance to pay off his debts and provide for his daughter's education.

One particular incident back in the U.S. haunted Clay. He had noticed, while driving past a cold lake near his home, that his annoying next-door neighbor was wading into the lake. Clay didn't stop to see what was going on, figuring that since the man was a Transcendentalist he was probably communing with nature. His neighbor had kept going deeper and froze to death, a suicide.

His adventures in Jeddah and surrounding areas are amusing as the reader witnesses Clay interact with his team and the residents of the region. What's really compelling is the description of life in 1910 Saudi Arabia, something we don't often have the chance to read about. The plot is full of interesting interactions, and the reader is totally engaged, hoping that Clay will stop being a buffoon.
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on November 12, 2013
I like it because it's telling readers in the States about the hostile indifference they face today when trying to do business in Saudi Arabia. However, the novel's is curiously unfinished, infuriatingly so. I suppose Eggers intended it as a way to dramatize the protagonist's moral and physical indeterminacy. But Eggers seems at war with himself over this whimpering ending. I say this because he so beautifully characterizes the woman doctor's creative, positive energy. She offers the protagonist so much more than a mere palliative to his suffering. I felt that the novel's ending was kind of cowardly. She and possibly those younger Americans could have orchestrated a much more climactic ending, possibly an ironic mishap that would have done in this guy for being so obtuse. The unfinishness makes me conclude that the novel has an unrealized potential as an allegory for the sick relationship software designers from the States have cultivated with Saudi Arabia's increasingly unpredictable and economically distressed ruling families.
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on September 9, 2012
I suppose a novel is whatever the novelist wants it to be. There doesn't have to be a story in any classic sense; the writer doesn't go to jail if there isn't some sort of conclusion in which relationships are left with a sense of either embryonic promise or final defeat, where the acute personal and sociological insights made in the course of the work are brought into concrete form in the person of the characters or the realization of the plot. Tantalizing promises of "more to come" can be just that and nothing more. The story, such as it is, can stop any time the author feels like stopping to take his bows in a lengthy, gushing set of acknowledgements that imply the genius of what has come before. All that is fine. But it isn't very satisfying to this reader.
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on August 18, 2012
Hologram for the King drew a well-focused picture of our global culture, or non-culture, as well as the economic malaise that has overtaken the world.

This book has many great qualities: crisp language, well drawn characters, telling detail. It also took a potentially boring situation -- the inner life of a man made helpless, passive -- and made it dramatic. It caught his internal conflict of the love he had, and frustration about, the remains of his family. It caught the tension of his impending crisis. Moreover, it showed his desperate delusions of finding some power (and money) through powerful symbolism -- the hologram and the virtual, almost unreal king.

I, however, was not in the mood for such a close look at our current malaise. I see the road kill from globalization, technological change and economic tectonics almost every day through my own experience and through my friends. Reading this book felt almost like living in the European plague in the middle ages, and, when your friends are dying, reading a book about humanity's helplessness in the face of catastrophe. The reader may want other, more hopeful images.

The ending to "Hologram for the King" was not a total downer, thank goodness. It would not be a best seller with an ending from Samuel Becket.

Sometimes the solution to malaise is not a painful book but rather some nourishment -- nature, non-dysfunctional family, friends, spirituality, some source of hope. I do not demand brightness and cheer in my reading material, but helplessness and downward spiraling depression get old.

This book details important, inescapable social and personal truths. The reader, however, may not be in the mood for social truth. Or, as with my on-and-off reading of Becket, you may be in the mood tomorrow, but not today.
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on September 24, 2016
In the late ‘60’s my father, who was a pilot, was approached about taking over the Saudi Arabia route, with a not inconsiderable jump in salary, plus other bonuses, paying our mortgage for the period of time we were gone, paying for whatever place we lived in there, or where my parents would have lived. My brothers and I would have been sent to various places for school, for me it would have been Switzerland, a boarding school. My father proceeded to “remind” us of the differences in the “customs,” including attire, and so on. At the mention of walking behind my father in public, my mother promptly announced she would do no such thing, and more or less stormed out of the room. Since then the idea of Saudi Arabia has intrigued me, my father still flew there often enough and I’ve seen his photographs of some beautiful places and people there, but it’s the people that seem to me, from this very American viewpoint, out of another time.

So this little book, “A Hologram for the King” was a little like visiting it for a brief time, in the quirkiest way, through the eyes and mind of Dave Egger’s Alan Clay, a wishful dreamer for a return to a way of life that has slipped out of his fingers, and even though he can see, in hindsight, his contribution to the outsourcing of America, he still clings to it the dream, can’t really believe that this is what its come to, not in this post 9/11 world.

While they play a game of sit-and-wait for the King to arrive, or even Alan’s contact, Alan’s “team” of twentyish beings who seem to have left whatever initiative they may have somewhere else. Day after day they sit in a large “Presentation Tent” without air conditioning, without being given food or water, inadequate Wi-Fi to work on their presentation, waiting to be told what to do. They have no interest in their surroundings outside the tent, hoping that when / if they King is to arrive that someone will do something about it. Alan sees himself through their eyes, succumbs to that vision for a while, but eventually tries to do something about it.

For Alan, this is more than a job. He has a college tuition for his daughter he needs to come up with, a daughter he keeps trying to write letters to which don’t make his ex look bad, but offer some solid advice, and maybe some consolation about why her mother is so awful. In order to return, be able to face his life back home, Alan needs this sale. He desperately needs it, and so he desperately believes it will happen. When he’s not desperately praying for this to happen, he’s worrying about a growth on his neck that he is sure will turn out to be cancer.

I loved Alan’s friendship with his driver that begins the first morning when he sleeps in too late and has missed the shuttle that drove his team to King Abdullah's Economic City. I loved the humor, occasionally subtle, in Eggers writing, and the underlying theme throughout.
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on October 30, 2012
This one never really pulled me in like most of the author's other novels. I did, however, like that the tone of the book felt rather light-hearted and playful despite the sometimes serious subject matter. It was extremely easy for me to get into Alan's head - to think what he thought, want what he wanted, and regret what he regretted. It was a bit shocking, toward the end of the novel, when I processed that Alan is 20 years my senior and yet I still feel the same fears he did.

Empathizing with Alan made me, I think, kind of depressed. Or lethargic... At least until the end. The Reliant part of the narrative also bugged me throughout the book. I really wanted in Alan's head to see where he was going and what he was doing. He needed motivation to be where he was and why, but I just couldn't get into what was going on with the company. I think those two pieces combined to pull what should have been a 4-star character study down to a 3-star story.

But now I want to go to Saudi Arabia. I want to know a life that's different from mine so that I can see mine clearer, I want to meet someone unexpected, and I want to not do nothing. As I often have. But it's always nice to commiserate - even if it's just with a fictional character.
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on December 11, 2012
Eggers is brilliant at taking the reader to an unknown, foreign place and giving it depth, understanding and weight. Yet his main character is so depressing to spend time with. Allan is having a 10 year mid life crisis and spending time with him is hard. It is an amazing inside look at the norms and culture of Saudi Arabia which makes me glad I read it. Eggers writes with authority and deep prose that I didn't once think to put it down, yet I don't miss Alan, now that I have finished the book. Alan's unfinished letters to his 20 something daughter are gorgeous, tortured and heartfelt. His tumor in his neck as a metaphor about his fears of death and dying was completely over the top. Although it did move the plot forward, as his doctor becomes a love interest that helps him find some interest in living. But finally, let's face it, a business consultant as the main character has a lot of things against him - from the start. I am surprised it made the top 10 on so many books of the year, but Eggers is an American literary force and always deserves a read, just not getting any awards from this reader. You know, now that I have re-read my review I am changing it from 4 to 3 stars.
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on October 26, 2012
Dave Eggers is a phenomenon. Author of 17 books and two screenplays, including fiction, nonfiction, and a memoir, several of them best-sellers; founder of McSweeney's publishing company; and co-founder of the celebrated literacy project 826 Valencia, the man is only 42 at this writing. I'm envious and a little in awe. (Well, maybe a lot in awe.)

In A Hologram for the King, Eggers inserts himself into the psyche of Alan Clay, a latter-day Willy Loman, a long-time salesman for the late lamented Schwinn Bicycle Company who has been retained by an IBM-like global firm to sell a huge package of IT services to the octogenarian King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Alan stands in for the millions of white-collar, middle-class Americans displaced by globalization, automation, and a world that's moving too fast for comfort. He has a daughter in college, an abusive ex-wife, a best friend who literally went off the deep end and died, an unpayable mound of debts to his friends, and an excessive liking for alcohol. He also possesses a large lump on his neck that he's convinced is cancerous and responsible for all his recent clumsiness and erratic behavior. In other words, Alan is a mess. I found it hard to sympathize for the man.

However, Eggers writes beautifully. His descriptions of the Saudi environment and the close-up look he offers from time to time about Saudi life are fascinating. His smoothly flowing prose draws you seamlessly from one scene to the next, shifting between flashbacks to Alan's life before his current assignment and his frustrating weeks in Saudi Arabia. But the story Eggers tells is far from uplifting or enlightening. Alan demonstrates his inability to relate to others in sustained relationships, first with the young Saudi man who drives him around, then with a young Danish consultant who wants sex from him he can't give her, and finally with the female Saudi doctor who surgically removes the lump on his neck. All this unfolds while Alan is waiting for the King to show up for him and his young team to demonstrate the holographic communication system they're certain will close the big deal and right all the wrongs in Alan's life.

In other words, not much happens in A Hologram for the King. I believe it was Joseph Heller who defined a novel as a book in which something happens. (It was probably somebody else, but Heller wrote one under that title.) Maybe it's silly of me, but I prefer novels where stuff happens.

To date I've read only two of Eggers' previous books, both of which I thought far superior to this one: What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a fictionalized account of a very real South Sudanese child soldier, and Zeitoun, a nonfiction treatment of the travails of a Syrian-American family caught up in the chaos of New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina.
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