A review of A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING (Dave Eggers)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
All novels may be taxonomized into three categories: There are novels of plot, novels of character, and novels of language. A novel of plot is driven by a story that could be synopsized without damaging the novel itself. Simply read an outline of the plot, and there is no reason for you to read the novel. A novel of character creates — or should create — living-seeming, recognizably human figures. But these figures, of course, are nothing more than fabrications, nothing more than chimeras that seem to breathe and talk. A novel of language makes worlds out of words.
Dave Eggers’ A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING (2012) is a novel of character, I suppose, but it doesn’t really work as a novel of character. Nor does it work on any other level. It must be said of this miserable little drip of a book that it fails as a plot-driven narrative, that it fails as the portrait of a character, and that it fails as a work of language.
Eggers has the tendency to write novels that are based on American high-school standards. YOU SHALL KNOW OUR VELOCITY — a novel that is as sincere as those frat boys who raise money for the homeless — is based on ON THE ROAD. THE CIRCLE was based on NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR. A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING was based on DEATH OF A SALESMAN and EN ATTENDANT GODOT (the epigraph is from Beckett’s play: “It is not every day that we are needed”). EN ATTENDANT GODOT is about the stupidities of faith, the stupidities of eschatology, and the infinitely postponed arrival (or non-arrival) of the Messiah. And yet Egger’s Messiah arrives! If Eggers wanted a classic about the degradations of growing old on which to model his tale, he should have turned to Bellow. HENDERSON THE RAIN KING, anyone?
Alan Clay is a semi-employed fifty-four-year-old former bicycle manufacturer who is contracted by Reliant, a major IT company, to introduce King Abdullah to a holographic projection system. The inaction takes place in King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), Saudi Arabia. Every day, Alan and his enviably young colleagues wait in the desert for the arrival of King Abdullah.
Novels do not need to be realistic, but they ought to be convincing, and the question of probability comes up more than a few times. If Alan is indeed “superfluous to the forward progress of the world” , why is he employed by the largest IT company of that same world and promised $500,000 if he succeeds in persuading King Abdullah to purchase the holographic projection system?
The novel is a novel about late arrivals, and Alan and his “Other” are forever arriving late to the party: Alan is too late to save his neighbor Charlie Fallon from self-drowning, Alan wakes up late on the day of his scheduled meeting with King Abdullah, Alan is “too late” (read: “too old”) to be sexually potent, King Abdullah himself arrives late, etc. I would advise prospective readers to never arrive.
As synaesthetes know, everything has a color. Eggers’ washout is not exactly an iridescent character. He is relentlessly grey.
A character should be, to paraphrase the Hegel of THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF SPIRIT, an assemblage of Alsos. That is: A character should not be one thing. A character should not be simple. A character should not be one-sided. A character should be this AND ALSO that AND ALSO that. Each of these traits should contradict one another. Since human beings are complexly self-contradictory, why should characters not be, as well?
Regrettably, Eggers’ main character is flatter than a Fruit Roll-Up. Alan is a never-was and was never anything besides a never-was.
While waiting for King Abdullah, Alan meets (guess who!) two sexually prepossessing young women: a gorgeous blonde Dutch consultant named Henne and a Saudi physician named Zahra Hakem who is intrigued by the knob-like excrescence on the back of his neck. At one stage, Alan imagines that his cyst has sexual powers. I could imagine the entire novel centering on the sexuality of Alan’s cyst, but no, that would have been too daring. This is a Dave Eggers novel, after all.
Each appointment leads to a sexual disappointment. Henne offers Alan sexual release in the bathtub of her hotel room, but Alan prefers the “purity” and “simplicity”  of the bath water instead. Dr. Zahra swims topless with Alan (this, apparently, is done all of the time in Islamic countries), but her toplessness does not lead to a toplessness-inspired act of sexual release.
Eggers simply cannot let his ageing protagonist be sexually uninteresting to women. Even though the novel pretends to be an allegory about the downfall of America in an age of globalism, it is really an all-American wish-fulfillment fantasy. Are we credulous enough to believe that the generously breasted blonde Dutch consultant is sexually desperate? And that Dr. Zahra lusts after Alan’s knobby cyst? Apparently, Eggers thinks that we are.
Eggers is more of a summarizer than he is a dramatizer. He tells more than he shows. An example (from the novel’s opening salvo):
“[Alan] had not planned well. He had not had courage when he needed it. / His decisions had been short sighted [sic]. / The decisions of his peers had been short sighted [sic]. / These decisions had been foolish and expedient. / But he hadn’t known at the time that his decisions were short sighted [sic], foolish or expedient. He and his peers did not know that they were making decisions that would leave them, leave Alan, as he now was – virtually broke, nearly unemployed, the proprietor of a one-man consulting firm run out of his home office” .
Now, a hard-working writer would do the grueling work of showing us Alan’s failures and shortcomings rather than telling us about Alan’s failures and shortcomings. Eggers is less of a writer than a publicist. The passage quoted above reads as if it came from a cover letter addressed to a literary agent.
Wading through the brackish waters and fetid marshlands of Eggers’ prose is not much fun. I never once got the impression that the writer was groping for the right word. To say that Eggers’ prose style wants elegance and richness would be a gross understatement. His word choices are bland and obvious, his vocabulary is restricted, his writing style is plain, his paragraphs are dull. To describe Alan’s dispute with Banana Republic over a one-time purchase that has killed his credit score, Eggers writes, doltishly, “Alan tried to reason with them” . This sentence could not have been written any more unpoetically and is yet another instance of the “telling” rather than the laborious “showing” which is incumbent on every responsible writer of fiction.
Eggers’ writing is so bad that it is almost ghoulish.
I have heard it said of Eggers that he is a man who is “easy on the eyes,” and I have no doubt that this is true. (His lecteurial admirers have a purely phenomenal interest in the writer. That is to say, they don’t care about the writing; they are only interested in the writer qua man.) Though I am not an adroit evaluator of male beauty, I suspect that Eggers-the-Man is indeed “easy on the eyes.” It is a pity that the same could not be said of the books that he types.
Dr. Joseph Suglia