A leading American literary figure writes an open-minded novel about doing business in Saudi Arabia: that doesn't happen every day.
In the latest book by Dave Eggers, an American tech colossus sends a 54-year-old salesman from Boston to Jeddah to make a presentation to the king. The goal is a fat contract.
Hologram is likely to be more interesting to readers in the West than to those in the Middle East. It dips its toe in the new-expat sensations but doesn't go deep. It is reasonable and superficial. In that way the book mimics its main character, Alan Clay, who observes far more than he feels; who seeks neither to judge nor offend.
The backdrop is the loss of American economic eminence, in which Alan's employers have played a role by exporting jobs to other nations, primarily China. A Willy Loman with air miles, Clay is unsure of his and his nation's place in the world. He pines for the days when Americans made things and grows wistful over the time he erected a rock wall in his yard; it was a lovely thing but he had to rip it down because he lacked the proper permits.
He harbours a plan, probably futile, to build bicycles in America.
The trip to Saudi Arabia gives Alan a chance to feel needed. It also gives him a new country to observe.
Arrived in Jeddah, he notes that "There were apparently no Saudis working at this Saudi hotel." He is told that procuring a car will take a few minutes, then 12, then 20, and then 20 again. He arrives at King Abdullah Economic City to find his bid team has been housed in a tent on the beach with unreliable air conditioning.
He is to meet his primary contact at 3pm. At the last minute a secretary informs him that the contact cannot make it. This recurs over a period of days. Finally Alan is told the contact is in New York - and runs into the man moments later on another floor of the same building.
To anyone who has lived in the region for a while, there is nothing new here. But at least it represents an honest attempt to understand a part of the world that many in the West view with the kind of apprehension reserved for a monochrome storm cloud on a far horizon.