Hamish Hamilton, £18.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop
A Hologram for the King, By Dave Eggers
This elegiac novel of mid-life crisis brilliantly captures the decline of a superpower
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books, 2013, and is currently a judge of the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014, and the Independent Scholastic New Children's Prize 2014.
Friday 08 February 2013
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.
Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'music
Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Thailand beach murders: Thai PM suggests 'attractive' female tourists cannot expect to be safe wearing bikinis
- 2 Scottish independence: What you shouldn't tweet about if you want to avoid jail today
- 3 Scottish independence: Five reasons Salmond is secretly hoping for a 'No' vote
- 4 Archbishop of Canterbury admits doubts about existence of God
- 5 Isis plan to 'behead random member of the public' in Sydney thwarted by Australian police
Laurie Lee's Rosie: What is it like to inspire a writer's work and be immortalised forever on the page?
Downton Abbey: Liam Neeson wants to be a stableman in period drama
Star Wars 7 leaked set photo of Adam Driver changes everything
The Walking Dead season 5 synopsis is full of spoilers and existential questions
Pharrell Williams says 'Blurred Lines' criticism is out of context
Daniele Watts: Django Unchained actress detained by Los Angeles police after being mistaken for a prostitute
Scottish independence referendum: A nation divided against itself
Scottish independence: David Cameron is becoming the 'George Bush of Britain'
Russia freezes Ukraine into submission: Kiev admits country doesn't have enough fuel for winter
Scottish independence: The Queen breaks silence on referendum debate – as think tank warns of £14bn black hole if Scotland votes Yes
Portuguese academic says British are 'filthy, violent and drunk'