A portrait of the American businessman abroad

June 29, 2012, 1:00 PM UTC
Courtesy: McSweeney's

There may be no more perfect choice for a Fortune reader looking to enjoy some fiction this summer than Dave Eggers’s new novel A Hologram for the King. For this story of an American sales guy in Saudi Arabia, the hipster hero and founder of publishing house McSweeney’s has completely changed his writing style.

His Pulitzer-nominated memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and his short stories featured a verbose, self-referential voice and an array of gimmicky postmodern techniques. By contrast, Hologram is restrained, to-the-point, almost Hemingwayesque.

That shift has served Eggers very well. Hologram may not sound like much based on its plot: Massachusetts businessman visits Saudi Arabia to pitch his company’s IT system to King Abdullah. But with punchy chapters and an oddly fascinating main character, the book is completely engrossing.

That character — lifelong company man Alan Clay — is much of the reason the book is so good. There’s just something about him, even though, on paper, he’s no Gatsby: “He was fifty-four years old … He could not find work, could not sign clients. He had moved from Schwinn to Huffy to Frontier Manufacturing Partners to Alan Clay Consulting to sitting at home watching DVDs of the Red Sox winning the Series in ’04 and ’07.”

Eggers has a history of creating vivid characters out of everyday people. In his nonfiction work Zeitoun, he chronicled Hurricane Katrina through the ordeal of one New Orleans local. That local was Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American contractor and family man. As he paddled around the flooded city in a canoe, helping others, Zeitoun became a complicated hero. Similarly, in What is the What, his fictionalized account of the violence during Sudan’s second civil war, Eggers made Valentino Achak Deng a lovable protagonist with everyday social limitations that were just as key to his identity as his brutal memories.

Unlike Zeitoun and Deng, Alan Clay is not a real person. So it helps that Eggers has done his homework on K.A.E.C., the very real, Dubai-aspiring King Abdullah Economic City, pronounced “cake” by some. The author’s journalistic approach to Hologram, much like the obvious fascination and meticulous research that he brought to Zeitoun and What is the What, serves to paint Alan’s milieu with lush strokes.

In a recent interview with The New Yorker, Eggers asserted: “I didn’t look at the country through journalistic eyes… I went trying to see it through the eyes of someone like Alan — what he would see, whom he would have met, what he would have done alone in a hotel room.” Regardless, not just Alan but also all of the dialogue, the attitudes of those in Jeddah toward K.A.E.C., and the scenes (remote castles, posh poolside parties in the desert) are real enough to make the novel informative without being didactic.

Yes, there remains a slight taste of the repetition and twee indulgence of Eggers’s earlier writing. Only two pages in, these three lines, arranged like a poem, somehow got past the editors: “His decisions had been short sighted. The decisions of his peers had been short sighted. These decisions had been foolish and expedient.” There are a few pointlessly navel-gazing questions: “Why was he in a tent a hundred miles from Jeddah, yes, but also why was he alive on Earth?” And, later: “Did it mean anything that an elderly woman had once thought him elegant?”

But for the most part this novel doesn’t read like an Eggers novel. He tells us the story of Alan’s hopeless visit to K.A.E.C. in quick, direct terms, relying on the setting to impart a vague fascination. And it does. Take this description of Alan’s first ride from Jeddah into K.A.E.C.: “A billboard came into view, advertising the development. A family was arranged outside on a deck, an unconvincing sunset behind them. The man was Saudi, a businessman, a cellphone in one hand, a newspaper in the other. The woman, serving breakfast to the husband and two eager children, wore a hijab, a modest blouse and pants. Below the photo was written KING ABDULLAH ECONOMIC CITY: ONE MAN’S VISION, ONE NATION’S HOPE.”

We are pulled in, early on, by the foreignness of the land, the oddness of K.A.E.C. itself, and even by the three (there really are only three) supplementary characters: Alan’s local driver Yousef, a Dutch consultant he meets named Hanne, and a second romantic interest, Dr. Hakem. Eggers approaches Alan as Tom Wolfe would have, creating a very real, likely research-informed portrait of an American businessman on foreign soil.

The explanation of Alan’s corporate mission in Saudi Arabia is completely convincing: “Alan had once known King Abdullah’s nephew … and Eric Ingvall, the Reliant VP in New York, felt that this was a good enough connection that it would get the attention of the King.” So are Alan’s memories of advice given to him when he was a door-to-door salesman: “He asked names. A habit Joe Trivole instilled back in the Fuller Brush days. Ask names, repeat names. You remember people’s names, they remember you.”

Scenes of Alan alone in his hotel room, e-mailing his daughter while drinking potent, black-market liquor called siddiqi (given to him by Hanne) will be instantly familiar to anyone who has traveled for work. Accompanied on this trip by three much younger colleagues, all fresh-faced and a bit obnoxious, he fears he has become obsolete. When a Saudi tells Alan that he knows of him from reading a Schwinn case study in business school, Alan reflects, “Always the case studies … The questions from those wise-ass students masquerading as earnest young go-getters. Why didn’t you anticipate the popularity of BMX bikes? And what about mountain bikes? You got murdered there. Was it a mistake to have shopped all the labor to China? This coming from kids whose experience with business was summer lawn-cutting.”

Because Hologram revolves around a real, massive urban development still in progress, the book is quite topical at times, though not in an oppressive or boring way. When Alan recounts how a former Schwinn colleague, Terry, got screwed out of a glass installation deal right after 9/11, it sounds like a story Eggers might have heard and put to paper verbatim:

“Apparently, the Port Authority of New York had accepted a bid from another company, Solera Construction. That seemed fair enough. Their bid was lower, and they were a New York firm. It seemed simple to Terry — until he dug deeper … Turns out Solera was contracting the glass out to a Las Vegas firm … But it turns out the Vegas people weren’t manufacturing the glass. They were a front. The glass was being made in China. Sixty vertical feet of blast-resistant glass in the new World Trade Center was being made in China.” Might that be a Solyndra reference in there?

Hologram may not get the same sort of buzzy attention in high literary circles as Eggers’s past books. That’s all for the better. The cutesy style of his fiction is gone, along with the victim-championing of his more recent books. Although Hologram is a very serious book, Eggers seems uninterested in drawing conclusions or life lessons. He gives us a fast, strangely gripping read that’s also dryly funny. (In a clever little anecdote, we learn that Alan’s credit score was ruined forever by a single Banana Republic purchase.)

With its quiet grace and simple plotline, A Hologram for the King marks a new maturity for Eggers. Whether it will have any impact on American understanding of what exactly is going on in K.A.E.C. is a different question.

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