A confession: I avoided reading David Eggers for several years. Why? I shared a room with a guy named David Eggers in college for a month or so. That David was a pleasant enough person in a dreadfully unpleasant place–a place worthy of being described by the writer Eggers, it occurs to me–but somehow the idea that the author might be this frat-house resident kept me from ever inquiring. When I finally broke my ill-informed embargo, I found that the David Eggers in question would have been finishing grade school when I attended the University of Missouri for that one, untriumphant semester.
Do I mention all of this simply to inflate my word count? Not exactly. The very focused story that lies at the heart of A Hologram for the King, Eggers’ 2012 novel, takes place over a span of just a few weeks, involves only a handful of largely unremarkable Americans, and explores a large but hardly earthshaking business deal that goes predictably south. On the other hand, this little story would be meaningless if not enmeshed in the longer life experience of the main character, Alan Clay, a 54-year-old corporate salesman who, through a long series of outsourcing moves, accompanied Schwinn Bicycles on their swift descent into business doom. Schwinn and the American bicycle industry–and for anyone who cares, there essentially is no American bicycle industry today–stand as a single grain of sand in a Saudi-Arabia-sized desert of American industry. To hear Eggers describe it, the United States has outsourced itself to death at both the macroeconomic and microeconomic levels. Not only has Schwinn been forced to sell out to Trek, but Alan finds himself desperately attempting to conjure one last, big score to redeem himself in the eyes of his daughter, who faces impossible tuition bills.
The hologram in Eggers’ novel refers to the gee-whiz feature of the pitch that Alan’s company, Reliant, hopes to use to earn the contract to supply the IT needs of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Economic City project. After weeks of delay, the king sees the hologram and promptly signs a deal, which we assume has been long assured, with a Chinese rival. While Reliant sells a literal mirage, the Chinese lean on their increased purchase of Saudi oil to cement their deal.
Alan Clay’s mid-life crisis parallels the American self-perception of recent years. So much of Alan’s life has revolved around the selling of illusions, from his door-to-door days with the Fuller Brush Company through Schwinn and on to Reliant, that he has very little that is truly tangible. The novel in which he exists reminds us of this illusory life at every page turn. The point in the story at which Alan seems to feel most real comes when he goes to a remote town with his driver and winds up involved in a wolf hunt. Alan can simply feel that he will be the person who sees and shoots the flock-pillaging wolf, and then, thankfully, misses when he takes his shot as the form he had unmistakably identified as the wolf turns out to be a shepherd boy.
I’m reminded, as I read A Hologram for the King, of one of the Bible’s enduring themes: the hubris of human aspirations. When the Chinese drive off with their signed contract, I can nearly hear a voice crying, “You fool!” Yet the folly of Alan Clay and his tribe of American businesses is even more profound than that criticized by Christ in the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21). Where the rich fool attempted to put aside his enormous harvest and coast through his remaining years, at least he had something tangible to put into his barns. Alan and his ilk–our ilk–typically have little more than technological glitz and a pocket full of sand.