A Hologram for the King

by Dave Eggers

A Hologram for the King is about Alan, a failed American businessman up to his eyeballs in debt. Previously superficially making the acquaintance of the nephew of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Alan manages to get a place among the team from the massive tech firm, Reliant, to pitch their new hologram technology to the king in the hopes of getting a contract providing IT for King Abdullah Economic City, a megaproject in the early stages of development. The story concerns Alan being way over his head in his attempts to get an audience with the king––the team coming to a few finished buildings in the middle of nowhere on a daily basis, attempting to set up their equipment in a tent with no internet signal, given no clue as to when they should actually be expecting the king and no support from their sole “contact” who has yet to show up.

Re-reading the above synopsis, I’m having a hard time deciding whether this actually sounds compelling or not. And it’s unfortunate if I failed to create an enticing summary, because I thought A Hologram for the King was superb––at times funny, engaging, insightful, and touching––and I’d obviously love for others to check it out. I’d even point to one small aspect of the writing that did significant work within the story to many important ends, to such an extent that I suspect it would be worthwhile to read again with an intent to study it: the mix of direct and indirect dialogue. I started paying attention to it when indirect dialogue appeared briefly, for only one line, in the midst of a standard, direct conversation, seemingly solely for the purposes of comedy––in this case, significantly taking away the sincerity of the single thought, making it clear that the speaker was suddenly just going through the motions when the conversation bored or annoyed him. But it re-emerged in entirely different ways, such as a quick summation of the important details in the midst of conversation––here the author likely realizing that the entire conversation playing out would be unnecessarily tedious, so we got just the salient points needed to proceed, and then we returned to direct dialogue for the rest of the conversation, that would presumably have better reasons for playing out fully. Perhaps this doesn’t seem an earth-shattering discovery to more seasoned writers and readers, but it’s amazing what a boon the knowledge of this can provide to a story’s flow or the control an author can have over more nuanced aspects of the story––when considering the first example, for instance––and how textured the narrative can feel as a result, when aware of fine details of their writing.

Of course, there’s substantially more to A Hologram for the King than that. Eggers thrusts his protagonist, a misguided idealist, in the midst of a barren, seemingly hopeless situation, one that he clings to as the only rope that can hoist him out of the equally terrible rut of his waking life. In this way, the author explores an unstable world, post-2008 recession, where someone like Alan appears trapped in another era, unaware that things have irreversibly changed. Sure, he has some idea that he’s losing out in ways he never would have in the past; he stays up at night worrying that he won’t be able to afford to send his daughter to school, seeing faces of friends who killed themselves when things grew out of control, and thinking about those who lost their shirts when they could no longer compete with cheaper labour overseas, but he can’t detach himself from the belief that the American Dream will save him. No matter how bad things become, the only thing that can keep him going is the understanding that the free market will reward his hard work and perseverance, despite all the experiences over the years suggesting that the deeper he plunges into globalism, the more he loses. With his story, Eggers comments on how strongly held ideologies blind us to any problems they directly cause, and how they bastardize our view of what constitutes progress in society.

So, on a grander scale, I thought A Hologram to the King was thoughtful and mature, and, even jumping in and dissecting the specifics of the writing, there’s a lot to learn from and a lot to love. This book comes highly recommended.