Saturday, January 26, 2013

Money. Romance. Self-Preservation. Recognition.

With A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers has written a fascinating, fast-paced novel for baby boomers in today’s global economy. By placing main character, American Alan Clay, in Saudi Arabia to bid for IT business, he showcases American culture like the Hope Diamond on purple velvet. In khakis and white shirt, Alan stands out among white thobes, gutras, black burqas, and iqals. He expects a faster pace; he expects appointments to be kept; he expects the king to be impressed with his company’s holographic presentation. The locals are much more muted and often amused by Alan’s expectations.

Fifty-four-year-old Alan wrestles with past personal failures and the business world’s focus on youth. As a formerly successful salesman, he laments the U.S. economy’s slip into China’s hands. Using Schwinn, his former company, as a case study, Alan thinks, “How did your suppliers become your competitors? That was a rhetorical question. You want your unit cost down, you manufacture in Asia, but pretty soon the suppliers don’t need you, do they? Teach a man to fish. Now the Chinese know how to fish, and ninety-nine percent of all bicycles are being made there, in one province.”

One aspect of A Hologram for the King that I enjoyed is that Alan is “a noticer.” He observes details of Saudi landscape and culture, which Eggers describes in streamlined prose. I also enjoyed Alan’s openness to friendships with Saudis, who take him on wild adventures and who reveal realities to him that his business associates have been secretive about. Eggers moves the plot along in these natural, fun, sometimes unnerving, ways. And I loved how Alan discovers so many pretenses—facades, charades, ideals—by going behind the scenes of what he was supposed to see.

What his hosts want him to see is a utopian city. At one point, one business associate, Mujaddid, shows Alan an architectural model. “‘Mr. Clay, I give you the dream of King Abdullah.’ … The model’s tiny buildings, each as big as a thumb, were all cream-colored, with white roads winding throughout, curving gently. There were skyscrapers, factories and trees, bridges and waterways, thousands of homes. … Alan had always been a sucker for a model like this, vision like this, a thirty-year plan, something rising from nothing—though his own experiences with bringing such a vision to fruition had not been so successful.” Throughout this book, polished presentations duel with streetwise humanity. In Alan’s current and past observations and in Alan’s adventures, Eggers brilliantly supplies metaphor after metaphor supporting this juxtaposition, as well as what appeals to the human heart.

And what appeals to the human heart are: “Money. Romance. Self-Preservation. Recognition.” This mantra shows up at key points in the story as Alan remembers sales motivations he learned as a Fuller Brush salesman. All four motivations play in Alan’s current situation. [epiphany spoiler alert]: His experiences in A Hologram for the King lead him to appreciate, rather than lament, his maturity. You’ll have to read the book to learn final events though.

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