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Made in China

Luna Dolezal

A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers, Hamish Hamilton, 336 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-0241145852

Since his dazzling debut memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction in 2001, Dave Eggers has been an active writer, publisher, editor, philanthropist and activist. He has coupled two somewhat divergent pursuits, literature and social activism, producing high quality writing as a means to tackle social injustices. His recent books, including What is the What and Zeitoun, have deservedly won many accolades for their quality and originality. At the same time, his work has given voice to sufferers of injustice and inequality, recounting real-life stories of the disenfranchised of contemporary America – immigrants, the wrongfully imprisoned, victims of racism and sufferers of institutional abuse.

Eggers’s most recent novel, A Hologram for the King, is a marked departure from his usual efforts. Its main character hails from the quintessentially privileged American demographic of the fifty-something, upper middle class, professional white male. The book is pure fiction and old-fashioned storytelling. Set in current day Saudi Arabia, it reveals the workings of a middle management corporate landscape in the globalised IT sector. The story follows Alan Clay, an aging consultant working for an American company called Reliant. Alan is in Jeddah City, where he has been sent to convince King Abdullah – whose nephew he was acquainted with twenty years previously – to award Reliant the contract to provide IT for KAEC (King Abdullah Economic City or “cake”). KAEC is a proposed city development, à la Dubai, to be purpose-built in the middle of the desert an hour north of Jeddah along the Red Sea coast.

Alan and his three twenty-something-year-old colleagues are driven to KAEC day after day, where they sit around in a large, poorly air-conditioned makeshift presentation tent bemoaning their poor Wi-Fi connection. They are waiting to set up and demonstrate a three-dimensional holographic teleconferencing system to King Abdullah, literally providing “a hologram for the King”. However, the king is not there and no one can tell them precisely when, if ever, he will arrive. “Days?” Alan asks his contact at KAEC, Karim al-Ahmad. “I do not know,” he responds. “Weeks?” Alan asks again. “I do not know.” “Months?” “I hope not.” The book could be entitled Waiting for the King and the allusions to Beckett’s Godot are by no means accidental. The epigraph is taken from Vladimir’s famous speech in the play, which culminates with the lines: “What are we doing here, that is the question … in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come.”

Like Vladimir, Alan’s one certainty is that he must wait for the king, and he does so in a fug of confusion reminiscent of the tragicomic emptiness, circularity and absurdity of Godot. He is stranded on a building site in the desert. He is paralysed by a sense of purposelessness. He is wracked with worry and guilt about his personal, financial and professional failings. He is obsessed with his own demise, certain a lump on his neck is a cancerous growth. He regularly drinks himself into a stupor. It is, in short, a melancholy yet strangely comic portrait of a midlife crisis, a middle-aged man who has found himself lost in a world which has effectively rendered him obsolete: “Now he was fifty-four years old and was as intriguing to corporate America as an airplane built from mud. He could not find work, could not sign clients.”

Alan comes from a bygone era for which Eggers is clearly nostalgic: a time when there was a moral clarity and sense of purpose; when people worked hard and valued craftsmanship, knew and helped their neighbours; when things were made to “last more or less forever” and everyone believed in America’s technological, political and social superiority. He himself is a friendly old-timer, a former door-to-door salesman who tells corny jokes, makes a point of being on a first-name basis with everyone and is wistful for that time when things came from factories just down the road. He has spent most of his professional life working in sales and manufacturing, “selling actual objects to actual people”. Now he finds himself out of step with corporate America, a system of virtual services – websites and holograms – put together by tech-savvy youth. Alan “had nothing to teach these people. They could set up a hologram in a tent in the desert, while he’d arrived three hours late and wouldn’t know where to plug the thing in. They had no interest in manufacturing or the type of person-to-person sales he’d spent his life perfecting.”

Eggers’s prose is well-crafted and taut, giving the book a slow pace which conveys a sense of the psychological and professional void within which the protagonist finds himself: “Alan stood in the middle of the tent, unsure of exactly what to do with himself. He didn’t have any work in particular to do, or phone calls to make. He retreated to the remaining corner, sat down, and did nothing.”  Doing nothing is Alan’s course of action throughout most of the story as he ricochets between his hotel room, KAEC and the houses and workplaces of the various locals he encounters. His paralysis and apathy is fuelled by his hypochondria, a suspicion, and sometimes a hope, that his death may be imminent as a result of the growth on his neck: “It was the size of a golf ball, protruding from his spine ... He’d planned to see someone about it, but then had not ... No, the trick was to touch it occasionally, track antecedent symptoms, touch it some more, then do nothing.”

In a disturbing yet comic sequence, Alan gets drunk on bootleg liquor in his hotel room, starts composing, over and over again, a letter he never sends to his daughter, scrolls through all his personal photos, “the vast grid of his life in thumbnails … his finger on the leftward arrow”, culminating in “a dangerous stasis of nostalgia and regret and horror” within which it seems like a good idea to lance the lump on his neck with a serrated dinner knife: “When he reached the growth, and in seconds he knew he had, there was nothing extraordinary. Just pain. Standard, fascinating pain.”

Alan’s story, the story of a privileged white businessman – the archetypal symbol of American prosperity – losing his place in the world serves as a vehicle for the real story Eggers wants to tell in this novel. It is a story about the woes of globalisation, of contemporary America losing its confidence and purpose – after so much prosperity the bewildering dissolution of the American Dream. Following the minutiae of Alan’s actions and his personal and professional demise anchors the book’s more political concerns and tempers what would otherwise consist of a heavy-handed critique of global capitalism, off-shore manufacturing, outsourcing and the collapse of American entrepreneurship.

Saudi Arabia serves as an ideal backdrop to demonstrate the double-edged coups of globalisation and the free market. It is a land of excess and contradiction, where the lavish profligacy made possible by oil money is kept going by an underclass of Asian migrant workers. Visiting a condominium development at KAEC, Alan stumbles upon the sleeping quarters of the Filipino, Pakistani and Malaysian labourers who are working on the site. The men, clad in their underclothes and red jumpsuits, are fighting over a discarded mobile phone amidst a mess of bunk beds, clotheslines and general squalor, “like pictures he’d seen of prison gyms converted to dormitories”. Upstairs on the fifth floor, just above these makeshift living quarters, he visits one of the finished luxury apartments, presumably built by these very same workers. It is a cacophony of opulence: polished teak tables, chandeliers, amber lighting, panoramic sea views, fine art, antique flourishes; in short, to Alan’s mind, “the most sophisticated dwelling possible”. Eggers drives home the point repeatedly: the outward successes of global capitalism – luxury living, inexpensive products and services, modern conveniences – have a human cost.

He is at pains however to make clear that the human cost of this global marketplace is not merely restricted to the exploitation of third-world workers. There is a cost at home on American soil: businesses simply cannot compete with all things “Made in China”. Illustrative anecdotes litter the novel: the American Schwinn bike factory moves to Taiwan, where production ultimately fails; the New York Port Authority chooses a Chinese company, over a Pittsburgh-based manufacturer, to provide the blast-resistant glass in the Freedom Tower on the World Trade Centre site; the Stride Rite shoe factory “ditched the unions” and moved to China, rendering hundreds of American workers redundant. Long passages and soliloquies bemoaning the disenfranchisement of American entrepreneurship litter the novel. Consider this diatribe from Ron, Alan’s father, a former Stride Rite factory foreman:

I’m watching this thing about how a gigantic new bridge in Oakland, California, is being made in China. Can you imagine? Now they’re making our goddamned bridges, Alan. I got to say ... I saw the rest of it coming – toys, electronics, furniture ... But the bridges I did not see coming. By God, we’re having other people make our bridges. And now you’re in Saudi Arabia, selling holograms to the pharaohs. That takes the cake!

Alan’s business in Saudi Arabia ends predictably: Reliant looses the IT bid for KAEC to a Chinese firm who “could deliver the I.T. far quicker and at less than half the cost”.

Throughout the book, Alan is haunted by thoughts of his neighbour Charlie Fallon, who took his own life by walking into the lake by Alan’s house, slowly freezing to death while others, Alan included, stood on shore doing nothing to stop him. Charlie Fallon’s death, bewildering and sad, serves, in part, as a metaphor for America’s apparently unstoppable downward trajectory: the police and firemen watch Charlie walking into the lake, but due to red tape – budget cuts and liability issues – they do nothing. “And besides, they said, the man was standing up. He seemed fine.” America, as a global superpower, is still standing, but is it on its last legs? Is all innovation happening elsewhere? At one stage, Alan reminisces about taking his daughter, Kit, to Cape Canaveral to see the Space Shuttle launch. Most of the NASA employees they meet will soon be out of jobs; the mood was “somber, bitter, loose, defensive”. An American architect, explaining to Alan why he has worked abroad – Singapore, Dubai, China – for years explains: “Not that it’s about the biggest or tallest, but you know, in the US now there’s not that kind of dreaming happening. It’s on hold. The dreaming’s being done elsewhere for now.”

A Hologram for the King is overall a melancholy and dreamlike portrait of contemporary America, told from a distance. The story weaves deftly from the intimate to the universal, following one man’s travails in order to illustrate global predicaments. Eggers has deservedly accumulated many of his customary accolades for this novel. It was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award and a New York Times bestseller. Beautifully written and crafted, the book ebbs and flows almost flawlessly, taking you on a slow, sad journey examining the human cost of a global economy driven by novelty, commercial interests, profit and greed instead of real human need. Zahra, one of Alan’s failed lovers in the novel, expresses Eggers’s sentiment perfectly just pages away from the book’s Godot-like ending: “Because I find just about all of it, she said – and swept her hand around the room, encompassing the house, the sea outside, all of the Kingdom, all of the world and sky – very, very sad.”

11/03/2013

Luna Dolezal is an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Philosophy, Trinity College Dublin.

 

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