Battling everyday demons in the desert heat
FICTION: A Hologram for the King, By Dave Eggers, Hamish Hamilton, 312pp, £18.99
Life is not going all that well for the failing businessman Alan Clay, now 54 years old and “as intriguing to corporate America as an airplane made of mud”. The hapless Clay is the central character of one of the most engaging and believable novels likely to be published this year. Dave Eggers demonstrates acute understanding of the human condition in what is a lively variation on Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949).
Yet this large-hearted novel is even bigger than that great play. Apart from Clay’s several errors of personal judgment he has to contend with the glaring reality of bad timing: he not only belongs to an ailing US, but the global economy is equally stricken. Terrorists lurk everywhere, and mounting paranoia has finally killed off New World optimism.
This is a cleverly topical narrative that resounds with astute observation, as witty as it is insightful, on the theme of society in a mess. The book’s true strength, however, resides in Clay as an Everyman trapped in a perpetual state of panic.
Having barely learned to deal with his fear of his strident ex-wife, he has to deal with mounting debts, his daughter Kit’s college fees and his unsympathetic widower father, who is always ready with caustic putdowns.
Also, something is growing on Clay’s neck; he suspects it is a tumour that may kill him and, in doing so, save his life. Not surprisingly, Clay can no longer sleep – or, if he does, he cannot wake up on time for anything, not even a meeting with an Arabian king, set up in an attempt to win the IT contract for a new city built on oil and dreams in the desert.
By the third sentence the beleaguered Clay is recalling a woman he met while waiting at Nairobi airport for his connecting flight to Saudi Arabia. “Alan liked her more than many of the people in his life, people he saw every day.” True to his dithering, beaten nature, though, Clay says goodbye and boards his plane burdened by his customary pangs of regret.
Such intuitive powers are to be expected of Eggers, who discovered the harsh reality of human existence when he was 21 and his parents died within three months of each other, leaving him to raise his younger brother. Eggers recorded his family’s tragedy in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), a memoir that made him famous. His diverse literary output, including the American Book Award- winning Zeitoun (2009), based on the racism experienced by a Syrian living in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, has sustained his status.
Zeitoun was initially hailed as Eggers’s response to Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Executioner’s Song (1979), based on the story of the double murderer Gary Gilmore. Eggers, having presented Abdulrahman Zeitoun as a wronged hero who had rowed about New Orleans, assisting fellow flood victims, then had to deal with media attention over the Syrian’s subsequent conviction for the attempted murder of the former Mrs Zeitoun – quite a postscript to Eggers’s book.
Still, Eggers at worst is merely guilty of kindness. He was courageous in his exposure of the racism at the heart of Zeitoun’s story and the anger that even his ex-wife agreed had influenced his criminal violence.
In What Is the What (2006), a picaresque of adolescence, Eggers concocted an unclassifiable narrative from a true-life account of a Sudanese boy who fled to Ethiopia and moved on to a refugee camp in Kenya before arriving in Atlanta, where he soon discovered that theft and muggings are not confined to Africa.