Make a left at the corner, head down the road about six miles, make a couple of quick rights, and you’re there: the plant of Thomson-Shore, printer of Dave Eggers’s new novel, A Hologram for the King. At least, that’s where you’ll be if you start out from the spot where I am typing these words. Should it matter to me that the novel I am reviewing was printed a twenty-minute drive from my home? Should it matter to you? What does it matter where a book is printed—or, indeed, if it is printed at all?
Such questions of locatedness and materiality loom large in A Hologram for the King, which announces itself as a novel about the end of the Age of Manufacturing in the United States (and which was a National Book Award finalist and one of the New York Times’s 10 Best Books of 2012).
In time-honored novelistic fashion, Eggers tackles his grand theme by focusing tightly on the experience of a small group of individuals—or, in this case, the experience of one profoundly isolated individual: Alan Clay (as in “feet of”), a fifty-four-year-old American businessman on the brink of financial ruin and psychological breakdown. Alan travels to Saudi Arabia as a consultant for a US firm trying to land the IT contract for the King Abdullah Economic City, a new city being built from scratch in the desert.
As befits a novel with an epigraph from Waiting for Godot (“It is not every day that we are needed”), not much happens: as Alan and his three young (and very sketchily drawn) colleagues wait for the King to come see their presentation of the hologram of the novel’s title, Alan spends much of his time alone in his hotel room, getting drunk on moonshine, composing and abandoning letters to his college-age daughter, thinking about his failed marriage and failed career, and poking with sharp objects at a growth on his neck that he likes to think may be causing his listlessness.
Never straying far from the consciousness of its benumbed protagonist, Eggers’s novel is punningly true to its title: A Hologram is a hollowgram.
Alan’s most sustained contact with other people occurs with Hanne, a similarly disaffected, European consultant; Zahra, the multinational doctor who eventually removes the growth from his neck; and Yousef, his Saudi driver. Sexual overtures from both Hanne and Zahra provide opportunities for Alan to demonstrate that his impotence is literal as well as figurative, while Yousef’s overture of friendship provides Alan with the opportunity for near-catastrophic overcompensation: helping Yousef protect sheep from a wolf, he almost shoots a boy. In the novel’s one truly surprising twist (spoiler alert!), the King—unlike Godot—actually does show up, but rather than end Alan’s waiting, his arrival establishes its permanence: the novel ends with Alan deciding to stay on in the KAEC, unwilling to return home empty-handed after the King awards the IT contract to another firm.
Never straying far from the consciousness of its benumbed protagonist, Eggers’s novel is punningly true to its title: A Hologram is a hollowgram. Eggers never quite speaks this pun, although the novel hints at it when Hanne suggests at one point that Alan is “absolutely hollow” and, later, when Alan himself, undergoing surgery, thinks of himself as literally “hollow, his body a cavity filled with wet things.”
More importantly, the novel works hard to motivate the hologram/ hollowgram pun by presenting Alan Clay’s loss of will and feeling as reflecting and resulting from what his father calls the “hollowing out [of] the [US] economy,” by which he means the outsourcing and globalization of manufacturing whereby Americans make “websites and holograms” as opposed to “actual things.” Alan’s own life and career have tracked this transition, with Alan himself even benefiting from it, until he doesn’t: the son of a “union man” at Stride Rite, Alan begins his career working for Chicago-based bicycle maker Schwinn, then helps that company and others move their manufacturing overseas, only to find less and less work because “People were done manufacturing on American soil.”
Even if Alan’s bid for solvency as a hologram salesman were to succeed, the novel suggests, this would not cure what ails him, because what ails him—and, by implication, ails America—is the very turn from shoes and bikes to websites and holograms in the first place: Alan’s predicament is that he was “born into manufacturing and somewhere later got lost in worlds tangential to the making of things.” Holograms, it seems, are not merely less material than bicycles. They are also less soulful. It is no wonder that one of Alan’s happiest memories is of building a stone wall by hand in his garden: “He pushed on it, and it did not budge. He stood on it, and it was as sturdy as any floor in his home. He was deeply moved by this.”
Having started out promising to illuminate
and interrogate the stories we tell ourselves about economic change, the novel
ends up merely reproducing them in their
most banal form.
Sadly, the town zoning department makes Alan take down his wall, and even bicycles, it turns out, are less soulful than they used to be, since nowadays virtually all brands are “built in the same handful of factories” in China. Back in the day, by contrast, “you had real international competition, where you were choosing between very different products with very different heritages, sensibilities, manufacturing techniques,” as a Saudi character who has studied Schwinn in business school helpfully explains. Alan has fond memories of watching bikes get purchased in settings where “Alan knew, and the retailer knew, and the family knew, that that bike had been made by hand a few hundred miles north, by a dizzying array of workers, most of them immigrants—Germans, Italians, Swedes, Irish, plenty of Japanese and of course a slew of Poles …” Alan finds it “hard to say” why this matters, but everyone in the novel seems to agree that it does.
Does it? The assumptions and assertions on display in A Hologram for the King about the putative social, economic, and even moral superiority of manufacturing to other forms of economic activity are quite common in contemporary American society. Given its popularity across the political spectrum, such received wisdom is surely ripe for scrutiny. At first it seems that the novel might be satirizing these beliefs about domestic manufacturing, or at least those who hold them, as when the drunken man sitting next to Alan on the first leg of his flight to Saudi Arabia wails, “It should matter where something was made!,” and complains that “we’ve become a nation of indoor cats.”
Perhaps, then, we should read Eggers as slyly suggesting that the story of the psychic and spiritual as well as economic costs of globalized manufacturing is one that Americans like to tell themselves to avoid acknowledging and grappling with other failings, whether personal or national, existential or historical? The novel offers a model for such displacement in Alan’s desire to blame his malaise on the growth on his neck, and the Middle Eastern setting invites a reading of the novel as an allegory about the limits of America’s military and geopolitical power. “I think it’s a slam dunk,” Alan says, speaking of landing the IT contract but channeling George Tenet.
Yet despite the novel’s unmistakable satiric and allegorical elements, and despite the irony with which Alan is treated, his challenges and failings as a human being—and his interest as a character—derive in large part from the fact, as Eggers has put it in interviews, that he is “a guy who had been in manufacturing for many years, and then found himself in an America where very few things were made at all.” This obsolescence is precisely what the growth on his neck helps him to avoid confronting. Rather than satirize Alan’s own reliance on a narrative of decline to justify his anomie and fecklessness, the novel charts the price he pays for having denied the reality of the decline to which he has himself contributed.
Eggers often treats the reader as if he or she were willfully dense, or at least a little slow on the uptake.
Having started out promising (or seeming to promise) to illuminate and interrogate the stories we tell ourselves about economic change, the novel ends up merely reproducing them in their most banal form. Any lingering doubts as to the novel’s own investments are eliminated by its paratexts: the novel’s copyright page proudly announces that the book’s first printing was “manufactured at Thomson-Shore Printers, Dexter, Michigan,” and the closing “Acknowledgments” thank by name “the entire staff” of Thomson-Shore—a list of some fifty-five names, even more diverse-sounding than the famously (or so the novel would have it) multicultural workforce at Schwinn. It is thanks to these paratexts that I know that my copy of the novel was printed—sorry, “manufactured”—nearby.
The problem, however, is that even as the novel suggests that I should value this physicality and this proximity, it does not help me understand why—let alone why that left turn that leads me to Thomson-Shore is preferable to the right turn (wrong turn?) that would lead me instead to the local Google office. Instead, the novel implies, to not understand the self-evident rightness of these convictions is to be as willfully dense as Alan Clay himself.
Ironically, Eggers often treats the reader as if he or she too were willfully dense, or at least a little slow on the uptake. Rather than trust his readers to figure out his meanings—let alone trust us to our own devices—he tends to explain his images. Why does Alan like to watch an old DVD of the Red Sox beating the Yankees? “It was a victory that could never be taken away.” Alan’s spirits are revived when he gets to captain a yacht: “He was a new man, a vital man. … he was again captain of the ship.” Alan tells a story about a camping adventure as a boy with his father. “So you saved yourselves by building something,” responds his listener; “I get it.” So do we, but the image is drained of its evocativeness as the story becomes, precisely, something we “get,” rather than something we experience or imaginatively engage. Similarly, the novel’s success in conveying a vivid sense of Saudi Arabia as a country that operates on two levels, the official and the actual, is not enhanced but rather diminished when we read “The whole country seemed to operate on two levels, the official and the actual.”
One need not go full Virginia Woolf—“Directly I’m told what a thing means, it becomes hateful to me”—to wish that Eggers did not insist at times on reducing his work to the illustration of a thesis; this would be true even if one did not have doubts about the thesis itself. At its best, A Hologram for the King memorably conveys Alan’s self-delusion and zombie-like flatness. At its worst, the novel reads like its own CliffsNotes.