I’ve been slow to get to Dave Eggers. Oh sure, I got my copy of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” signed when he spoke at the University of Iowa in 2003. And I was on the committee that selected “Zeitoun” for the 2011 Johnson County Reads program. And I’ve kept an eye on his various projects — McSweeney’s, “The Believer,” 826 Valencia — because he’s doing interesting things in publishing and non-profit writing/tutoring services.
But until I picked up “A Hologram for the King” (McSweeney’s Books, 317 pages, $25), I hadn’t read his work. I’m now eager to read more.
“A Hologram for the King,” which was a 2012 National Book Award finalist, is the story of Alan Clay, a man in desperate straits who is trying to pull his life together by closing a deal with the King of Saudi Arabia for information technology services. The date of the King’s arrival is a moving target, and Clay is left to wait in King Abdullah Economic City — as yet an unrealized dream of a city — and the surrounding area. During this blank, unstructured time, he attempts to come to grips with his life and find hope to vanquish his growing despair.
The book is one man’s story, but Eggers also knits his tale together with global realities — the outsourcing of American manufacturing, the increasing influence of China, the slow changes in social mores in Saudi Arabia — giving the book a heft that Clay’s character carries on his shoulders.
Eggers builds the book from short, declarative sentences and fragments — “A knock at the door. His breakfast had arrived. Hash browns to his room in five minutes. Impossible unless he was eating food prepared for someone else. Which he realized he was. He didn’t mind.” The approach seems right for Clay’s state of mind and for the arid landscape in which he finds himself.
The text is broken into small chunks divided by blank space, perhaps to emphasize the slow passage of moments rather than full scenes. At times, this creates powerful effects, stopping the reader before an idea or line can disappear into the flow of the text. But often it is just distracting — as is Eggers’ decision to eschew quotation marks in favor of inconsistently applied dashes to indicate dialogue — and seems to be a maneuver to stretch the page count.
Nevertheless, “A Hologram for the King” is an emotionally resonant story and Alan Clay is a memorable, if pitiable, protagonist.