Turns out you’ve already met Alan Clay, the hero (if you can call him that) of Dave Eggers’s spare and gripping new novel, A Hologram for the King. He’s the sort of Rabbity, Babbitty company cog who doesn’t really have any true friends and blunts the pain of dashed ambition with nightly doses of alcohol and televised sports; Willy Loman, minus the unbridled joy.
But Clay’s literary forebears lived in a different world than he does. They had families and jobs and communities, however lacking in glamour these might have been. By contrast, the 50-ish Clay is a man adrift in the 21st century. Divorced and untethered to any basic institution, he’s a debt-ridden American in the twilight of a solitary consulting career that has him hurtling around the world like a dying comet. He’s an emissary from yesterday’s country, and he’d kill for the stability that used to be its hallmark. Or would he?
It’s a testament to Eggers’s talent that you’re never really sure. You do cringe for poor Clay as he tries, pathetically, to complete his latest work assignment: securing an information technology contract in King Abdullah Economic City, a fledgling real-life municipality in Saudi Arabia. But you also laugh with him, because, lonely as he is, one plank of the American Dream remains resolutely his: total liberty, terrifying as the notion might be.
As he showed with the excellent What is the What (2006), Eggers is a master of the docu-novel. He’s able to capture the inner life of a man living in the immediate present, buffeted this way and that by current events. Clay is at once a timeless archetype, and very much a creature of today. A former union-buster and outsourcer, he is, as an American, now the wallflower at a dance where King Abdullah himself (who keeps delaying his meeting with Clay) may well choose a more cost-effective bid from China. Clay’s Saudi hosts condescend where they would once have shown him respect, treating him as if he were a kind of infirm family dog. As time goes on, Clay wonders about his purpose in the Economic City and on Earth in general.
The only logical way out for this benighted chump is to lose it, and he does so in a way that is eerie, suspenseful and tightly controlled. Often, you’re not even sure that is what’s happening; reading this book is like being boiled in a pot of water where the temperature goes up by one degree every 10 minutes. But when Clay ends up hunting wolves in the desert with strangers who think he might be a spy or trying to perform spinal surgery on himself, your suspicions are confirmed. This is a person with no particular fear of dying. Now anything is possible.
Not that he lacks fear: Clay is obsessed with the question of his own usefulness, which is to say his (diminishing) ability to make money. “He was as intriguing to corporate America,” Eggers writes, “as an airplane built from mud.”
It’s significant that Clay doesn’t consider his college-age daughter Kit as a worthy legacy in and of herself. To him, Kit is but one more reflection of his financial ineptitude, a human bill he’s skipped out on (to paraphrase Arthur Miller: Tuition must be paid). Clay thinks that if he only lands the IT contract – the centrepiece of which is a kind of state-of-the-art holographic trick – the resultant monetary windfall will cure “everything that ails him.”
To do this, he can’t stay at home any more. Globalization has catapulted him across the planet, into a place that (desert aside) looks a lot like Orlando or “a Scandinavian airport.” The people he meets all speak smooth CNN English, regardless of whether they’re from Denmark or Lebanon.
But against this cold, strange, science-fictiony backdrop, Alan Clay still has hope. With each turn of the page he makes new friends, has bizarre adventures and stands to earn a lot of money. Yes, he is living “wrong”: He’ll never achieve the greatness to which fictional businessmen once aspired, or the mundane comforts they used to enjoy. But every day brings a raft of surprises. And that makes his life – and this book – pretty exciting stuff.