Battling everyday demons in the desert heat
The blending of fiction and nonfiction, along with the fictionalisation of fact, has defined Eggers’s technique, and, even allowing for his short stories, he has until now been viewed more as an original writer than as an imaginative storyteller.
The publication of this new work, though, significantly confirms Eggers as a novelist. A Hologram for the King places him shoulder to shoulder with AM Homes and Jeffrey Eugenides. Eggers applies a gentler, though more effective, satire than did either Homes or Eugenides in their recent novels.
Clay is a shambling contrast to the three youngsters on his presentation team. They all travel to the half-built desert city of the future – and wait in a stifling tent for the planned audience with the king. The Saudi men speak with western accents and are not helpful. Clay’s frequent oversleeping causes him to require the services of a driver. This introduces Yousef, a young man with an ancient car. He is dangerously involved with a married woman. Clay’s repertoire of jokes wins Yousef over.
Eggers is good on dialogue and sharp description. The desert quickly materialises into a dramatic stage; the flat heat becomes another character, as does the sterile perfection of the artificial city. Clay battles his dreams and his demons, as well as some vivid memories, ranging from a neighbour’s passive suicide to a pleasant interlude building a wall that officialdom then forced Clay to pay others to tear down. All the while, Eggers is quietly, convincingly and so movingly creating a study of a crippling loneliness. Clay is defeated yet still experiences flurries of hope. Several of these are fuelled by the powerful liquor given to him by an equally despairing, if slightly more assertive, Danish female executive, who explains that waiting for the king needs a good deal of patience.
Clay writes letters to his daughter, as he has done for years, and has moments of philosophical self-questioning guaranteed to raise the hairs on any thinking person’s neck: “There had to be a reason Alan was here. Why was he in a tent a hundred miles from Jeddah, yes, but also why was he alive on Earth? . . . Very often it required some digging. The meaning of his life was an elusive stream of water hundreds of feet below the surface, and he would periodically drop a bucket down the well, fill it, bring it up and drink from it. But this did not sustain him for long.”
Moonshine consumed by the eager glassful in the hotel room opens the door on to a new, if distorted, existence. Clay exults in “the floor shifting as it did . . . [T]he walls were his friends”.
An outing to the mountains and an unexpected chance to hunt wolves go badly wrong for Clay. In him, Eggers has created a character who suffers yet hopes. The New World journeys to the old on a quest, only to find an even more appalling invention about to be completed.
More than a decade ago, Eggers emerged as a writer; now he has written a vivid, cohesive novel filled with compassion, hurt and the dream of something better.