Book Review: On Dave Eggers’ ‘Hologram for the King’

Guest post by Bradley Hope, Cairo correspondent at The National newspaper

There is a peculiar melange of emotions that comes with visiting the construction sites of the Arabian Gulf, whether it’s Dubai, Doha or Riyadh. Construction workers, predominantly men from South East Asia, hammer away at sites in the middle of the desert. Slick promoters pull you through empty hall ways and gallerias, explaining the imminent arrival of Hermes and Dunkin’ Donuts.

[caption id="attachment_800" align="alignright" width="320"] David Eggers’ A Hologram For The King[/caption]

The product of the workers’ backbreaking labour and their employers is often starkly out of place: gleaming edifices with ambiguous purposes other than to sate the desire of the kingdoms to have skylines that compete with the capitals of the world. The “contextual” architecture is often nothing more than a mashrabeya pattern on a building.

Visiting these towers and experiencing the odd cultural life of cities made-up mostly of expats can feel at once like being in the future (the film Code 46 used Dubai perfectly to capture this), but also of being in a profoundly empty place. The arrival of Dave Eggers’ Hologram for the King – the first novel to really take these emotions seriously – is a welcome balm for visitors to the hurried, ambitious business capitals of the Middle East. Somehow it soothes your nerves to see in well-formed sentences and thoughts echoes of your own past emotions.

The novel is quite different from Eggers’ earlier works. It is not playful and clever like his Heartbreaking Work of a Staggering Genius, nor is it based on an extraordinary human story like What is the What or Zeitoun (the latter two were the books that won me over when I first started poking around his books).

Hologram for the King is the extraordinarily simple story of Alan Clay, an American businessman who is up to his eyeballs in debt and finding his life quite vacant. He arrives in Saudi Arabia with a small delegation of colleagues to pitch the deal that could solve all of his problems: a contract for King Abdullah Economic City to install a full multimedia system that includes a hologram machine.

The book is a chronicle of his wait for this opportunity – a presentation for King Abdullah – and the strange interactions he has with expats and Saudi Arabians in a country that is at once exceedingly modern and very old-fashioned. It is about the emotions that come with finding yourself in far-flung corners of the world, faced with the rising waters of globalisation. I found the book to capture perfectly the emotions that come with visiting cavernous conference centres in the desert. And I was thrilled (in a way that perhaps only business reporters in the region could) to find Emaar Properties and its mega project in Saudi Arabia to be the backdrop of a novel!

Mr Eggers traveled to Saudi Arabia for the story and spent a good deal of time there examining life. The story was inspired by a relative who had visited King Abdallah Economic City some years back. If you have any interest in what is happening in the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf or the psychological impacts on globetrotting businessman or just good, old fashioned novel writing, then I highly recommend it.

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