This was my first Dave Eggers, and I was almost sad it wasn’t the extravagantly-titled, Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? but we can’t have everything. This is another starkly-written one, and it took me a little while to settle into it. It’s a very jerky style, with lots of little sections that don’t always deserve to be standalone sections.
Basically he’ll have a longish section, say, a conversation, and then there’ll be a good one-liner to end it on, and the next section starts… right at the next spoken words in the same conversation.
I know some people hate dialogue that uses dashes rather than speech marks so I’ll mention that now in case you are one of those people. It’s never really bothered me; it just gives a story a certain feel, and I think it works nicely here.
I liked a lot about the story, It hits a lot of my sweet spots: big deserted/never lived in cities and buildings, people visiting countries that are foreign to them, the weird, aimless solitude of the Katherine Carlyle and Hotel du Lac sort, even talk about the decline of industry.
It’s sort of about “fighting the long defeat”, as Tolkien might put it, of the increasing decline of industry in the US now that it’s gone beyond the largely ignorable losses to the working classes that came with widespread outsourcing – now the middle classes are finding their jobs vanishing out from under them. Okay, that’s not entirely fair of me. I shouldn’t judge a book for what it isn’t and the issues it doesn’t talk about and never promised to. But you know, it’s all very well when working class jobs vanish, but it’s a brand new tragedy all of a sudden once it creeps higher up the chain…
This is massively unfair of me, because the main character, Alan, is very much on our side on this, though he didn’t really do anything at the time and in fact may have helped outsource some sectors of companies he has worked for. Let’s leave it at that.
There’s a lot of interesting generational differences regarding the idea of ‘making things’ and the job market, from Alan’s dad who counts working with one’s hands as the ultimate manliness, and the difficulties his daughter is having even staying at university with the unstable job market that lies ahead, as she looks to start at the place where Alan has slid down to over decades. Alan was involved with an until-recently-US-based bicycle factory, which in today’s world counts as practically being a craftsman, but he’ll never live up to his dad’s expectations. And his driver, Yousef’s, father, owns his own shoe shop, which to Alan is even closer to that holy grail of Making Things With One’s Hands, until Yousef tells him he sources the shoes elsewhere and has never made a shoe in his life.
A Hologram For The King taps into the very current anxieties over supply chains and sneaky outsourcing, undercutting and corner-cutting and the loss of variety. It displays eloquently the helplessness we can feel over the origin of the goods and services we buy through the nonsensically bureaucratic wait for the King of Saudi Arabia to arrive and pronounce judgement over the companies lining up to impress him – except the game is rigged, obviously so, from the start, and all Alan can do is play along.
I liked Alan’s jokes and his friendship with Yousef. The sequence where he stays at Yousef’s family compound was particularly good, from his learning perspective to finally being able to build a wall, do something with his hands. I appreciated Alan’s concerns with his health, too, the way you sometimes almost wish there was something wrong to explain why you’re feeling the way you’re feeling.
About the only thing I wasn’t much a fan of was the ending. It just… ends. Nothing is really resolved but Alan’ immediate failure. And I get that it’s sort of symbol for the US, but I feel like it’s a bit cheeky for a writer to just reflect like a mirror and not say anything further? He doesn’t have to solve the whole US or anything (though someone should get on that maybe soon) but I was hoping for a little more. Still, for such a slim book I got a lot out of it, so maybe I shouldn’t be too ungrateful.