Listen to A Hologram for the King on Audio CD and you’ll hear the way-cool, matter-of-fact narration by Dion Graham. Graham embodied Spero Lucas, George Pelecanos’ most recent main man, in the audio book of The Cut and, well, I think I want to line up all the books Graham has recorded and drink them all up. (I’d do nothing else for the next few years; Graham is a busy man.)
Eggers works on a larger landscape than Pelecanos’ urban crime novels. I’m not a completest in either case, but now feel compelled to go back through all of Eggers’ work—that’s how much I enjoyed A Hologram for the King even though the story is somewhat spare and the action slow. But the mind of Alan Clay, our hero, is a busy place and it’s through Alan Clay, stuck in Saudi Arabia trying to cut a deal to sell a holographic teleconferencing system, that Hologram takes place.
The sales meetings never come together. There is waiting, missed connections, dashed hopes. Alan Clay struggles to be patient. He’s a stranger in a strange land, a foreigner who doesn’t quite know the codes and rules and how to close the deal. He’s got ample experience selling brushes and bicycles but on this project everything is off kilter. Alan Clay is stuck and baffled. He wants to win and yet, just like his beloved Red Sox, fully recognizes that losing is part of the game. “They had given Alan no guarantees. The King is very busy, they told him repeatedly in emails and phone calls. Of course he is, Alan said again and again and reiterated that he was willing to meet anywhere, at the time of His Majesty’s choosing. But it was not simple like that; it was not just that the King was buys, but that his schedule changed quickly and often.” The schedule must change often “for the sake of king and kingdom” and Alan Clay is just another vendor and it could be days or weeks until it’s time to present.
He now works for Reliant, “the largest IT supplier in the world,” and he’s under contract, as a consultant. So he’s betwixt and between in many different ways, including his broken family relationships back in the United States, and he’s often trapped in a hotel that could just as easily be Arizona or Orlando. The hotel is “free of content or context, devoid of even a pattern or two of Arabic origin.”
Alan Clay tries to control events and then gives up. He gives himself over to the waiting. He befriends a driver who has spent time in the United States. He first resists and then relents to the overtures from a European woman named Hanne. He frets about the dangers of a cyst and tries his own self-care, drawing blood and drifting in a state of worry and uncertainty (yet another layer of doubt and indecision; what to do?).
It’s as if Alan Clay is the holographic image himself and slowly, through the course of the book, it’s his personality and character that must shimmer into place and come into full focus in the new land. In order to finish the teleportation process, he needs to recalibrate all his attitudes and expectations so they fit the new environment. He must trust his surroundings and trust the natives—or anyone who knows the ropes better than he does. He is trying desperately to understand his own usefulness. “Not to consume, not to watch, but to do something for someone else that improved their life, even for a few minutes.”
Toward the end, Alan Clay encourages his driver to stop and help where a stone wall is being built and “Alan’s job is to keep the mortar from hardening, stirring it, adding water periodically, and when that was taken care of, to help find the appropriate stones to place next to the wall. The work was slow, and the language barrier made it frustrating for both sides, but Alan felt good being outside, using his arms and legs, sweating through his shirt…”
Real work, raw materials and it is Alan Clay (get it?) who must keep the mortar from hardening.
A Hologram for the King is a big swirling novel about globalization and it takes place in the very small spaces of hotel rooms, hotel room bathtubs, doctor’s offices and tents in the desert. It’s big and small at the same time. Dion Graham’s smooth narration, like a late-night jazz DJ from the early days of FM radio, grounds the story in the hot desert in a cool, inviting vibe.