It’s funny, isn’t it, the way some images and ideas from books imprint themselves on the mind? Reading Dave Eggers’ new book, I keep remembering an image from The Castle by Franz Kakfa, which I read more than 30 years ago. Each day K. goes to the castle to try to see someone in authority. He sits on a hard wooden bench, his back against the cold grey stone wall. He waits and he waits. He asks occasionally if there is any progress or if he can see anyone who will help him. He gets nowhere. Ever.
But when I visit Wikipedia to check Kafka’s dates (1883 – 1924) I read the plot summary of The Castle and I see that K. doesn’t get inside the castle at all. Where did that image of him on the wooden bench come from?
Still, there are uncanny echoes of The Castle in A Hologram for the King. A man in search of salvation travels to a strange place each day to try to meet with an official who will help him. The gatekeepers hold these remote authorities in awe, but no one ever sees them. The endless insurmountable frustrations swirl around in a kind of waking dream with absurdity piled on absurdity. Egger’s title made me wonder if the entire edifice was a hologram…
A hologram is a kind of electronic mirage, right? A Hologram for the King is set in Saudi Arabia. Alan Clay is a failed businessman, trying at the height of the Global Financial Crisis to restore his fortunes so that he can pay his daughter’s college fees. Having failed to make the transition from local manufacturing to outsourcing offshore, he now needs to resurrect his skills as a salesman to win an IT contract for his company Reliant. Alan thinks he can draw on an old acquaintanceship with the King’s nephew to get an audience. Yes, there are echoes of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman too. (I saw that again the year before last, it’s a play that always seems relevant).
In undemocratic Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah is all-powerful. GFC or not, his squillions can rescue any project if he wills it. The KAEC,( the King Abdullah Economic City), is to be another Dubai, a shiny, modern symbol of Arab wealth and power risen from the desert sands on oil money. So every day, Alan leaves the Jeddah Hilton and travels as a supplicant from the most powerful nation on earth into the heat and dust of a development site, where the only building (nicknamed The Black Box) remains closed to him once he’s been fobbed off with the obligatory tour. He can’t get past the gatekeeper, a receptionist called Maha. Polite and respectful, she is implacable. Karim al-Ahmad has been assigned to assist him and the other contractors who are making a pitch to the King. And no, Alan can’t see him today… he’s variously in Jeddah, Riyadh, anywhere but KAEC …
Alan and his team of young consultants are then marooned in the Presentation Tent outside. The air-conditioning isn’t very good, and the other contractors are all ominously missing. Frustrated by the intermittent Wi-Fi, the young consultants find ways to amuse themselves: they play computer games, listen to music, play poker, do what young people do. Which does not include pretending to have any respect for their erstwhile leader Alan. He can no more understand them than he can communicate with his daughter…
While the King’s movements can be tracked through media reports (he’s variously in Yemen, Riyadh, anywhere but KAEC), Karim al-Ahmad remains elusive. On one occasion Alan does succeed in sneaking past Maha, and thus meets the expat Hanne, who introduces him to the secret life of Saudis: boozy parties and other flagrant breaches of Sharia Law (which threatens execution for crimes such as adultery). It’s ‘Dutch courage‘ that makes Alan reassert himself from his inept stupor to get some long overdue action by the Saudis – but it doesn’t make the King turn up.
My favourite character is Yousef, the young driver provided by the Hilton when Alan oversleeps and misses the shuttle bus to KAEC. Yousef is his guide to the real world: it is he who takes Alan to the doctor for a worrying growth on his neck; it is he who forecasts the likely fate of KAEC (and all who seek economic salvation there). In his tatty old puddle-brown Chevy Caprice, he is an emblem of recession. He’s a reference point for American fears about terrorists too: Alan fears kidnapping by Al-Qaeda but when Yousef checks his car for suspicious wiring each time he gets in and out of it, it’s because a jealous husband is after him.
At a loose end, Alan escapes into a surreal desert fortress with Yousef and his mate Salem. Here Alan can indulge his yearnings for a simpler life, away from the pressure to perform. But the sense of threat is always there. He’s in a strange country, where breaking rules he barely understands can have devastating results. He’s in a strange mood too, which nearly has devastating results.
I was less fond of Alan’s father, but I think the author intended that. Alan rings him up when he’s feeling low, but instead of solace, he gets belittled for his failure as a businessman. Ron represents an economic past, still harking back to the days when America was a manufacturing economy, not a knowledge economy. He carries on about the days when bikes were built in the US instead of being imported from somewhere else, but I bet he still buys cheap clothing made in China and I bet he benefits from the information industries that the US exports to the world. It’s the same here in Australia, people notice when a widget factory closes but they don’t pay any attention to jobs created when a new vaccine that saves lives is exported around the world or when solar panels incorporate new technology and become cost-effective to install. (My newly installed 17 panels delivered a $200+ reduction on my winter power bill – and I can’t wait to see the impact in summer when they’re operating at full capacity!)
My thanks to Tony at Tony’s Book World whose review helped me choose the right book for the moment.
A Hologram for the King is, as the blurb says, ‘a taut, richly layered and elegiac novel‘. I liked the wry humour and the crisp writing style. I understood the wistful yearning for a more certain past and I liked Alan as symbol: like the country he represents he may be impotent in some ways and he makes horrible mistakes, but he’s an indefatigable optimist and he’s not about to surrender his ideals. The book ends on a bittersweet note, leaving me wanting more.
Author: Dave Eggers
Title: A Hologram for the King
Publisher: Penguin Australia 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin
Or direct from Penguin: A Hologram for the King