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LOST IN TRANSITION
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.