Much of Dave Eggers's work bears a spirit of showmanship. As the publisher of the hip literary magazine McSweeney's, his writing style has a touch of the same experimentalism and tricksiness, from his semi-fictional debut memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, to the gimmickry of his short stories.
Lately though, there seems to have been a paring-down of sorts, and now, in this fourth novel, Eggers experiments with simplicity of form. This story is unlittered, the characters few, and the style lean to the point of being stripped to its elements. The result is impressive – controlled, crystal-clear prose that resounds with painful and profound psychological truths.
The mid-life crisis at the heart of this book is also representative of a crisis in American identity. This could have led Eggers to tread on over-familiar, Harry Angstrom territory, yet the story is fresh. Alan Clay is a fifty-something salesman, arrived in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah with his team to make a pitch for a lucrative IT contract to King Abdullah himself. The highlight is a hologram which showcases the wizardry of the wares that his company hopes to sell. For most of the novel, the pitch does not happen. Instead, Alan broods in his hotel room or walks around the desert landscape that will one day become the shiny new 'King Abdullah Economic City'.
There is something very Beckettian about it all, from the stripped language to the air of tragicomedy that surrounds Alan, a fallen everyman blinded by his own existential suffering. King Abdullah, like Godot, is an elusive figure who refuses to show up, so the wait becomes the agonised focus and central metaphor of the story. Alan increasingly sees himself as a nobody and this disempowered status captures America's dwindling influence as a global power. He, like the country, is in decline and his angst has an elegiac, post-imperial quality. This angst manifests as rage in Alan's father, who rails against the Chinese industry, while Alan's own loss is expressed in paralysing bewilderment. His is the ignominy of the all-American entrepreneur who is now having to knock on foreign doors. The loss affects all aspects of life, from the threat of foreclosure to a failing libido.
The strangeness of the Saudi landscape – the dull uniformity of the hotel and the vast nothingness of the desert – is brilliantly captured, almost as if it were another planet to Alan. The economic hub, to be built in Abdullah's name, stands like a half-built ghost city in the desert. Alan's inner emptiness is reflected in this hollowed-out environment, the perfect no-man's land for his negative epiphanies. "Why he was in a tent a hundred miles from Jeddah, yes, but also why he was alive on Earth." Alan, for his low-level buffoonery, is a profoundly lonely man searching for connection. Eggers draws out his failings, with compassion. Flashes of comedy and poetry are occasional and startling. Everything about this novel is spare, compelling, and proves how staggering a genius Eggers can be.