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on 12 August 2012
Dave Eggers' "A Hologram for the King" is both an entertaining satire of the at times surreal expatriate experience in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and a deeper meditation on the hollowing out of the American industrial economy.

In fiction, business executives are generally stereotyped as either sinister or feckless. "Hologram's" Alan Clay is of the familiar second type. He is 54, divorced, broke, and having been made serially redundant from well-known companies (notably Schwinn the late bicycle manufacturer) he is striving to eke out an existence as an under-employed consultant. Somehow, on the basis of a tenuous connection to a member of the KSA royal family and his client's ignorance, he lands what is potentially a game changing contract to lead the sales pitch of Reliant (the world's largest IT concern) to the King Abdullah Economic City ("KAEC as in cake") that is being built near Jeddah.

Alan's experience in KSA will be familiar to most western travelers to the Kingdom. He turns up for confirmed meetings only to find that his counterparty is out of the country. He passes a military checkpoint where a close to comatose soldier dangles his feet in an inflatable pool to keep cool; he encounters three dozen south Asian workers dense-packed in a semi finished luxury apartment while one floor above, a Saudi salesman occupies a similar apartment equipped to the highest standard of luxury; he discovers illicit rot-gut liquor; he gets invited to a drunken party at a Nordic embassy, and so on.

Eggers is not especially concerned to ridicule Saudi Arabia, though its absurdities make for easy satire. His main "message" is the passing of America's industrial age. Alan reflects on this constantly throughout his trip, often in the form of unsent letters to his daughter, whose tuition he is about to fail to pay. Great companies have disappeared, the capitalists having sold to China the intellectual property rope to hang themselves. When Alan develops his own wistful business plan to make high end bikes:" Some of the bank people were so young they'd never seen a business proposal suggesting manufacturing things in the state of Massachusetts." When young people, such as the three techies accompanying him on his pitch, have jobs they are to do things in cyberspace while everything in the real world, even the bridges they drive over, is made in Asia. In this new world, there is no real place for people like Alan who used to be the mainstay of the American dream.

Eggers' lightness of touch in his confident, crystal clear prose is balanced by his insertion of haunting scenes and images: Alan's self-lancing of a sinister growth on his neck with a steak knife, flashbacks to the suicide of his close friend in a Walden-like pond, memories of a shuttle launch, a strange hunting incident, a loss of sexual appetite at a moment of opportunity. Eggers' message sticks: Alan may belong to the feckless stereotype, but for a growing number of middle class Americans that is the only role that is left.
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on 27 March 2015
A light read. You get the sense that Eggers thought he might be writing a "big" novel here, one which tackles philosophical and topical issues about the place of America in the 21st century world, the conflict of perception vs reality of Saudia Arabai seen through Western eyes, the rise of China as a world power, crisis of identity etc.

But it's pretty thin when it comes to all that. A bit hackneyed even. You can see this formulaic scheme writ large from the very beginning. The main character, Alan Clay, is a middle aged, divorced, fallen from grace salesman, fitting into a well established trope. There is a rather laboured go at symbolising America's fall from the top as the big world power by an impotence metaphor, clumsily exemplified by instances of Alan's actual impotence. And so on. It's a bit "novel of ideas by numbers" in this sense.

If you're having trouble picking up on the rather blunt metaphors, characters in the novel helpfully point them out to you as you go along. "Why are we giving this presentation in a tent instead of the main building? Are we not important anymore?I don't think they're going to give us the contract," they say. Or "Why are you surprised that we're all drinking and having extramarital sex here one day, but then being extremely conservative the next? Didn't you know that this is a country of contradictions?" which we hear quite a few times.

Despite that, it's fairly well written and easy to read. Just a bit lacking in substance, and unsubtle in its attempts to claim that it does have some.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 21 April 2013
Fiftysomething Alan Clay is a low-key kinda guy. He is going through some sort of existential late mid-life crisis but even that is a low-key kinda breakdown. Financially strapped, he is dependent on closing a gazillion dollar deal with King Abdullah in Saudi's new city-in-the-making. But when he eventually arrives at the nascent King Abdullah Economic City, there's no sign of the king and Clay enters a Kafkaesque world where his already shaky grip on things becomes even more precarious.

This loss of grip is reflected in the underlying thrust of the story - the loss of manufacturing in the States and the economic rise of China. Unfortunately, this reader's interest tailed off somewhat for the last third of the book when Eggers digresses from these twin themes to go on a couple of detours but nevertheless this is a terrific read from a terrific writer.

You can see Alan Clay so clearly that it's as if he is standing right in front of you and Dave Eggers portrays the anomalies of life in the Kingdom so well it's as if you are there. Whilst many aspects of what is happening to Clay are really quite sad and touching, this is a very humorous read. Clay's car journeys with his driver Yousef, a wonderfully drawn character, are hilarious. 4.5*
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on 20 April 2013
Eggers novel reads like a contemporary take on Arthur Miller's famous play, Death of a Salesman. It not only manages to expose the hollowness of a relatively unsuccessful commercial life, but places it in the context of globalisation. The decline of America is juxtaposed with the rise of China. But it is its setting, Saudi Arabia, which suggests that the spread of capitalism consequent on US decline is very thin indeed. Like the new desert city planned by the Saudi king, it confuses aspiration for reality in the business speak which masquerades as the new lingua franca. The novel's message is both highly local and global, individual and societal. As we are all increasingly herded into `competition' with one another, on the basis it will encourage dynamism and success, the results are often the very opposite: mediocrity, lack of sufficient resources, and worst of all, self-deception. This is definitely a novel of its time.
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on 21 October 2013
Meet Alan. He's arrived in Jeddah for the chance of a lifetime, to revive a career that has seen much better times. He needs to really earn that final commission that is going to be the answer to all his problems. Things don't go as he had hoped and we are taken on a journey through Saudi and but also into Alan's soul. We meet his ex-wife, his much younger and keener work colleagues and a range of Saudi citizens, who variously help or hinder him. The book includes details on the decline of manufacturing in the USA,; the money markets; and a range of perspectives on Saudi society. We learn a lot and are gripped by how Alan gets by in a very alien place and how he comes to understand his past relationships and his emotional issues. Perhaps the book is an allegory for the way we live now? It certainly offers an extremeley well written gipping story about the place of an individual lost in a globalised world.
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on 3 August 2013
This is a book about American anxiety for the future. It does capture something of the times, and it has its insights, but it is somewhat over weighted with leaden symbolism: the illusory and frightening (hologram/business/sales) verses the real and safe (walls, bicycles - stuff that can be made by hand). Too much time is given over to the rather mundane point that manufacturing supremacy in America has now gone overseas. The writing style is fraught with over-simplification - perhaps reflecting an underlying concern on the part of the author that writing itself is not really as real as a wall - or maybe just done to emphasize the moralizing tone - or both.
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on 14 May 2016
This was an unusual book - as expected from Dave Eggers. I quite enjoyed it but I kept waiting for something big to happen - but it never did. Still very readable though - and at the time or writing this, a film of it has just been released, so it will be interesting to see that. I still really enjoyed the book - but it wasn't quite as good as The Circle - which I loved.
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on 19 December 2014
I was eager to sample Eggers' talents in a full-length novel after being treated to his imaginative genius in a bite-sized fable about sleeping giants in Zadie Smith's short story collection "A Book of Other People".

Off I went with his briefcase-in-tow American IT consultant who is scheduled to meet the Saudi sheikh to secure a gargantuan IT contract for an upcoming desert megapolis. The peculiar setup gave Eggers an excuse to evoke and offhandedly satire the affluent Gulf's sociology, its scenery with a curious American IT-bot at the center, and for most part this engaged.

I was captivated most by the simple language (I use the term "simple" in the best sense of the word) that helped deliver the mini-epiphanies of this "fish-out-of-water" man-professional as he absorbed the scenery, the situations and the people with more certainty. It also helped make the undercurrents of frustration from his elusive neck lump that won't go away and the pathological redrafting of letters to a distant daughter figure bubble up with more colour. How a deliberate selection of commonplace words and almost-banal phrasing accentuated the gentle choreography of mood was one of the book's joys. The tones elicited were clearer, in intruded by ambiguous images that more arcane and flowery groupings of alphabet would have conjured. Particularly in the first half, where we have this man-next-door curiously stranded in an ambiguous ocean of sand with "strange" people who have "strange" social protocols and concepts of time and everyday living. As he floated further and further adrift with the perennial cancellations, striking unexpected friendships and liasions, it's Eggers' crystal-clear language that somehow make his sparse thoughts and actions appear more enhanced, in a sense, solid and at times, more menacing (case in point a nail biting setpiece concerning an impromptu wolf-hunt).

However, it is precisely these choices of language and structuring that undo the book's second half, where with the incident count stacking up, the shifts in tone and the development seemed more and more sudden like walking down the steps of an unknown staircase in the dark, in particular our protagonist's entanglement in the final section which came completely from the left field and while thankfully subverting a lazy conception of what a Saudi woman should be like, it felt synthetic and a bit too cinematic.

These unannounced contrivances of the second half almost made me reassess the book's strengths and it was a while before I could pen down what I really thought of the book as a whole.Ultimately for me, this was a book of two halves. It's certainly an easy read, and can be seen as a companion piece to Paul Torday's similarly themed, deceptively simple Salmon Fishing in the Yemen which was more cohesive tonally and more successful with its structure and conceits. But in totality it does not wholly convince.
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on 2 June 2016
I'm sorry, I did not enjoy this book. It seems lots of people did. I thought the characters, the few that there were, were well defined, especially Allan, the main character and Yousef, they were very believable, but I felt as if I was was waiting for something to happen throughout the entire book....and it didn't!
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on 18 February 2013
A fine book, wryly humorous, narrated with confidence and restraint. The theme - the emptiness around us, and the importance of being able to identify and grasp the real - is handled at a number of levels, which prevents it becoming as depressing as it might sound. The protagonist, poor Alan Clay, is an homme moyen sensuel who has lost all his points of reference and is adrift in a world he no longer understands.

This is the first book I've read by Dave Eggers, and I'll certainly buy another.
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