Sands of time

A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£18.99/McSweeney’s RRP$25, 318 pages

Dave Eggers sets out the stall for his new novel in its epigraph, from Waiting for Godot: “It is not every day that we are needed.” It’s a modest statement – though in the play it is delivered in the context of Vladimir’s urge to “do something while we have the chance”. What does it mean, this book asks, not to be needed? What about those days when we aren’t?

Alan Clay, having expected to be needed, finds himself at 54 in a place where he is not. Once, he was a successful salesman. He was a senior figure in Schwinn, the real-life Chicago company that in the mid-20th century dominated the American bicycle market but is now, he notes sourly, taught in business schools as a cautionary tale. Alan owes money – foolishly borrowed to finance failed attempts to establish himself manufacturing bicycles on American soil. His ex-wife is a nightmare. He doesn’t know where he’s going to find the money for his daughter’s college fees.

When we meet him, he has been given a last throw of the dice. On the strength of a long-ago acquaintance with the nephew of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, he’s accompanying a three-man team from a big IT firm as a consultant. They are pitching for the contract at the King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), a titanic project being built in the desert 100-odd miles north of Jeddah. Day after day he and his team assemble in the desert in the hopes of an appointment – and day after day, the King fails to show up. Alan – who once made something useful and beautiful – is left trying to sell something illusory to an absent monarch for a city that shows no signs of being built.

So he and his colleagues hang around, at first in a state of readiness; fretting about getting WiFi so the holographic communications technology they want to show off will work; wondering about catering. But malaise sets in. The young team sits around playing cards. Alan becomes steadily more detached. He sees how they see him – recognising in them, he thinks, the look his daughter will give him “when [she] would first catch him soiling his pants and drooling ... that of gazing upon a human who was more burden than boon, more harm than good, irrelevant, superfluous to the forward progress of the world”.

Alan broods on a neighbour who, recently, walked into the lake and froze to death. He worries about a lump on his neck. He gets drunk alone in his room in the Jeddah Hilton. He begins countless abortive, never-completed letters to his daughter. He befriends a young local, Yousef, hiring him as a driver; and Hanne, a Danish payroll consultant working in the KAEC – reaching for connections; experiencing, in each case, a different sort of failure.

Alan’s situation is more sharply offset by bursts of confidence and self-esteem, soon deflated. He has a tiny triumph – and then the good moment goes. Confidently offering advice to his friend, who’s convinced that an ex-girlfriend’s husband is going to put a bomb under his car, for instance: “Alan chose not to tell Yousef that he had been generally unskilled in matters of love, and was now celibate and alone ... He chose to allow Yousef to believe that he was now and always a successful man revelling in the sex-drenched cities of America. A triumphant man with a powerful appetite and unlimited options.”

To say that nothing much happens in this book – that things are sort of aimless – is not to denigrate the story. A Hologram for the King is never boring: it is deeply involving and atmospheric, very poignant and very funny.

Eggers writes from beginning to end with a lovely ease and confidence; the confidence to write plainly and let his effects be cumulative. Alan’s thin experience is told in plain and uninflected prose, marked only by the occasional small and exact flare of comic style – a packet of slender cigarettes is “silver and white and tiny, like a miniature Cadillac driven by an insect pimp”; someone scrolling through his phone makes a sound “like the clicks of a Geiger counter”.

A Hologram for the King channels, at different times, the Conrad of Heart of Darkness and the Shelley of “Ozymandias”. Its symbols are at once blindingly obvious qua symbol and entirely well-realised qua realist furniture. The shining, never-to-be-built city in the desert and the tumour on Alan’s neck stand for something but they are also, consistently and unemphatically, themselves. They are objective correlatives for a midlife crisis but they are also facts of the 21st-century world, of the 54-year-old body.

Without being overly explicit, Eggers allows Alan’s existential discontent to stand for something global, something for which he’s a case study, a psychological microcosm, an economic symptom. America doesn’t make anything. Alan doesn’t make anything. And the whole collapsing idea on which his life is built is not just his own, but a distinctly American idea. This is Death of a Salesman for the international age, and it’s wonderfully well done.

Sam Leith is author of ‘The Coincidence Engine’ (Bloomsbury)

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