x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

A Hologram for the King: East's sandcastles rise in the sky

Dave Eggers is a one-man literary and cultural dynamo, and his return to fiction proper is a novel about the dematerialisation of America and the East's growing influence.

An artist's rendering of the King Abdullah Economic City in Jeddah. Emaar-HO / AP
An artist's rendering of the King Abdullah Economic City in Jeddah. Emaar-HO / AP

I'm beginning to think that there may be more than one Dave Eggers roaming the Earth. Either that or the one Dave Eggers we Earthlings have doesn't require sleep, or hasn't since the publication of his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) brought him renown at the start of the century.

The man is everywhere.

For starters, he founded McSweeney's, the zeitgeist-defining publishing house and quarterly literary journal, as well as The Believer, a distinctive and influential independent monthly arts and culture magazine, not to mention Wholphin, a more recent quarterly DVD magazine. He is the editor of the annual Best American Non-required Reading book. (You can get an idea of the (in)famous Eggers/McSweeney's tone from the 2011 edition, with chapters entitled "Best American Commune Names" and "Best American Best American Categories That Got Cut", nuzzled in with pieces from literary luminaries such as Joyce Carol Oates.) He's co-written two Hollywood movies, one being Spike Jonze's moving, underappreciated 2009 adaptation of the late Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. In 2002 he cofounded a non-profit writing centre for children called 826 Valencia in San Francisco; there is now one operating in New York, Chicago, Washington DC, Boston and several other cities. Eggers himself may or may not be in each and every one of these as we speak: in fact, he may very well be standing behind you as you read this.

I'm joking, but it's impossible to deny that we're dealing with an indefatigable and influential figure in contemporary American culture, someone who can sometimes seem more like a brilliant ideas man than an author.

Yet he's somehow found the time to write books. Quite a few of them, in fact. Following A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius came his debut novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity! (2002), and a collection of short stories, How We Are Hungry (2004). Arguably, these works of fiction pale beside his acclaimed memoir and especially the veritable cultural movement he was spearheading with the McSweeney's and The Believer crew. Not to mention the good he was doing with his 826 national non-profit writing centres.

This all changed with What is the What, his 2006 novelisation of the life of Valentino Achak Deng. For the first time since A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Eggers seemed to refind not so much his voice but his purpose as a writer. This he accomplished by more-or-less losing his voice as Dave Eggers and by combining his writing (that most solitary art) with what amounts to a kind of community activism. He may not be the best American writer of his generation, but he's certainly the most earnestly engaged. His work exists on and off the page.

What is the What is a brave and interesting novel - a fictional autobiography of Deng, a Sudanese Lost Child (who related his story to Eggers over many years), and his hellish journey from Africa to the United States. It's a novel full of casual brutality (both African and American), improbable survival and even more improbable hope. Eggers, by writing in Deng's distinctive voice, seemed to have found a way to cleverly and commendably sidestep his generation's privileged cynicism and pop culture-saturated ennui.

In 2009, the Council on American-Islamic Relations presented Eggers with the "Courage in Media" Award for Zeitoun, his next book, an often harrowing non-fictional account of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-born survivor of both Hurricane Katrina and the Kafkaesque terrors of America's so-called war on terror. Zeitoun, like What is the What before it, is a book that is connected to non-profit grassroots organisations. In fact, the first page of Zeitoun reads that "All author proceeds from this book go to the Zeitoun Foundation, dedicated to rebuilding New Orleans and fostering interfaith understanding". In other words: read the book, donate to the cause. The book is only part of the story.

On the other end of the spectrum of contemporary writers, the prodigiously talented Geoff Dyer once wrote: "In Rome I lived in the grand manner of writers. I basically did nothing all day. Not a thing. Perhaps this is why I was such a seductive role model for many of the aspiring writers who lived nearby."

Perhaps - and perhaps this is why Eggers represents something so important to today's aspiring American writers: here is a guy who actually gets things done. Leading by example, he almost romanticises hard work, community spirit, independence and risk-taking; that only partially mythical optimistic American gusto that once helped create the country. It's fitting, then, that the decline of this can-do industrious era happens to be the subject of Eggers new novel, A Hologram for the King.

More pointedly, it is a novel that takes place not in America at all, but in Saudi Arabia; most of it, in fact, on one of the world's newest frontier towns, King Abdullah Economic City. The Wild West is long gone. Here, Eggers introduces his readers to the new Wild Middle East.

A Hologram for the King is the first novel since You Shall Know Our Velocity! that he hasn't based on a real person; and though it won't have the flashy effect of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, nor the social importance of What is the What or Zeitoun, it may be his finest book. It is both a parable and a lament for a lost American way of work (meaning life) - and a novel that only someone like Eggers, who himself harkens back to that overachieving industrious spirit, could write.

It is a sad, elegiac book. It begins inside a Hilton in 2010 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Alan Clay, a past-his-prime, past-haunted and impotent American businessman has come to the kingdom in order to help pitch a holographic teleconference system to King Abdullah. Clay was asked along not because of his sales or technical acumen but because long ago he once knew a nephew of the King. The idea is that the hologram will sufficiently wow the King, resulting in KAEC's lucrative IT contract.

In his 50s, Clay is a failure. He is more than $100,000 in debt. The holographic presentation is his last hope to prove to himself and others that he is worth something. If he doesn't get the King's contract he will not be able to pay for his beloved daughter's college tuition. Like many Americans, he has made mistakes.

"But he hadn't known at the time that his decisions were short-sighted, foolish or expedient. He and his peers did not know they were making decisions that would leave them, leave Alan, as he now was - virtually broke, nearly unemployed, the proprietor of a one-man consulting firm run out of his home office."

It is a delicious set-up. Clay and his team are led to a tent in a city that doesn't quite exist. There they wait for a King who could arrive at any time or - it slowly dawns on them - not at all. They are Americans made powerless. The air-conditioning breaks down, the internet doesn't work - there is no food. Clay is stuck inside a real place that feels like a hologram of places he's been before, a new city built on a strangely mutated American ideal of pure capitalism. Empty American fast food chains stand on a ground literally made from sand, waiting for the city to form around them. Is Alan Clay the hologram or KAEC itself?

Clay becomes friends with an entertaining and jocular Saudi cab driver, Yousef, who become his guide and eventually invites Clay to his father's large house in the mountains. Yousef, in his "puddle-brown" Chevy Caprice, describes himself as Clay's "driver, guide, hero". It is their tragic friendship which is the human centre of the novel.

At one point, Clay even calls his father, who doesn't mince words: "Every day, Alan, all over Asia, hundreds of container ships are leaving their ports, full of every kind of consumer good. Talk about three-dimensional, Alan. These are actual things. They're making actual things over there, and we're making websites and holograms (…) while sitting in chairs made in China, working on computers made in China, driving over bridges made in China. Does this sound sustainable to you, Alan?"

Clay hangs up the phone before answering his father's final question - but the answer, Eggers novel posits, is clear. In the end, King or no King, the only thing sustainable in Alan Clay's world is his undying American optimism for a better future, and it certainly feels like optimism will no longer be enough.

Tod Wodicka is the author of the novel, All Shall Be Well; And All Shall Be Well; And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well. He lives in Berlin where he is at work on his second novel, The Household Spirit.