A Hologram for the King is a useful object with which to gently knock the heads of those who like to flap on about the demise of the physical book. This book is so beautiful, in terms of its physical design, that it stands as a definitive, classy, counter-argument to the E-books-Are- the-Future-Crowd. The cover looks like embossed leather, but has a metallic sheen. You almost expect to find a secret lever under the cover that activates an actual hologram. The publishing house McSweeney’s, founded by the author, Dave Eggers, has given us a striking object which earns its place on your bookshelf.
A Hologram for the King is basically a business trip drama, such as the movies Lost in Translation and Up in the Air. Alan, 54, divorced and deeply in debt, travels to Saudi Arabia to give a demonstration of his company’s holographic telecommunications line. He and his team wait day after day for a meeting that keeps getting postponed in a seemingly endless loop. Jet lagged and disoriented, the IT team lounges in a modular tent, the Arabian version of a conference center. The space is huge and empty as a locker. An outsized, alienating architecture. I saw the influence of J.G.Ballard in Eggers’ evocation of a totally man-made, denuded environment.
A Hologram reminded me of Philip Roth’s great novel of industrial history, American Pastoral. Where Roth used women’s gloves as an example of the decline of American industry, Eggers uses bicycles. Alan was once was an executive of Schwinn bicycles. He played a key role in getting the company to relocate its factories, more than once, causing terrible disruptions to the company operations. Schwinn, which Eggers notes that he researched for this book, can stand in for almost any American company whose cost-cutting and outsourcing were its undoing.
In one of the most incisive scenes in the book, Alan argues with his bank about a loan to start a new business. His credit rating, perfect for decades, has been permanently marred due to a Banana Republic credit card he applied for to get a small discount at the register. (Can you even complete a transaction in any mall across America without being asked if you’d like to open a credit card with the store?) He thought he’d closed the card out, but a small transactional fee remained unpaid and the bill was sent to collections. It’s a good example of the ways that regular consumers get screwed over by credit card companies. Who can keep up with the Byzantine terms of agreement for these evil little cards? I was pleased to see this wretched facet of our bank-based economy skewered with such precision in a contemporary novel. Hearing Alan try to reason with the bank employee was a painful reminder of my own maddening relations with banks and other bureaucratic darlings such as health insurance companies. The people on the phone with whom Alan tries to reason are powerless to help him. They are all cogs in a rapacious, profit-seeking structure. “The age of machines holding dominion over man had come. This was the downfall of a nation and the triumph of systems designed to thwart all human contact, human reason, personal discretion and decision making.”
It’s a near-dystopian vision, with only a very small allowance of hope made for family and the faintest possibility of love. A Hologram for the King kept me reading up to the end, in part, I think, because I enjoyed handling the craftily designed thing itself. I jotted down notes along the margins and attached post-its to the pages. Occasionally the notes veered toward the frustrated, “Dull dialogue!” “Bad sex award!” But those are the criticisms of a fully engaged reader, reading a fully engaging book.
Post Script: The New York Times Book Review interviewed the author and he had really smart things to say about reading and writing. Bottom line: Encourage, encourage, encourage. Save the criticism for later. Save the old classics for later, too. Great advice for teachers! Get kids hooked on reading, THEN hit them with the hard stuff. It doesn’t really work the other way around. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/books/review/dave-eggers-by-the-book.html