I love Dave Eggers. In the unabashed, sincere way that would likely be scorned by the irony-lovers of McSweeney’s, I just love him. Since reading *A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius* I’ve lined up for everything he’s written. I’ve found his work playful, smart, (sincere) and wise. I’ve marvelled at his triumphant shifts in genre and narrative voice as he shows naysayers that he’s not (simply) the navel-gazing memoirist of AHWOSG (as it is known), but a writer of robust talent able to shift in mood, tone and voice in ways that marvel only in comparison with his other works (which is to say, each individual work doesn’t read like a self-referential return to earlier works, but rather a reader who has read his past works can draw these comparisons and applaud the dexterity of his craft).
So it is a tempered criticism I offer of *A Hologram for the King* – one marked by my recognition that I could be (simultaneously) (and unintentionally) holding Eggers to a higher standard *because* I admire him so much OR I could be overly generous because Eggers holds a choice place in my pantheon of favourite authors (a blog for another day, suffice to say John Steinbeck, Margaret Laurence and William Trevor keep him in good company).
The plot (with *Spoilers*) in a few sentences? Alan, failed businessman, has a last ditch opportunity to make his fortune selling holographic technology to Saudia Arabia. After a series of Kafkaesque bureaucratic failures he succeeds in delivering his pitch, but fails to land the deal when the Saudi king opts to go – as did the rest of American business – with the cheaper Chinese firm. Meanwhile Alan struggles to make sense of his middleage, his failed fatherhood, his frustrated sexuality and his degenerating body: he, like America, is falling apart and ailing.
It’s a book that masters the Thematic Moment – the repeated realization that the description or the dialogue is meant to be Symbolic and Important and Worth Noting. Case in point a scene where Alan wades into the waters outside the (holographic) city (note the holographic city is in and of itself meant to be Symbolic and Worth Noting) and registers the difference in this water from that of his home. Heady times for one wading his feet. It’s only a complaint insofar as each scene has this predetermined weight that makes the reading feel unnecessarily heavy: we are embarking in each paragraph – willing or not – on something thematically momentous. The end result is that the character, the plot and the scenes do not unfold with nuance or grace, but rather a sort of clumsy seriousnessness that weighs down potential authenticity of charm.
Still, this is a criticism that recognizes its own limitations. I was frustrated with the lack of “events” in the plot even while I realized the thematic importance of showing the impotence of the narrator (see? am I being overly generous?). I was troubled by the manner in which all other characters read as placeholders for characteristics or affects desired or needed by our narrator (Alan), even while I realized the “holographic” metaphor – as one meant to remind us that most, if not all of our interactions with other people, institutions, identities – requires the characters to be void of depth or substance.
So while I can argue the literary merits of the artistic choices, and could write a persuasive essay on the thematic significance of Alan’s tumor, or Alan’s near (but again failed) shooting of a young Arab boy, or the contrasting significance of indoor/outdoor settings – and I’d believe all of this to be true and earnest, the truth is: I just didn’t like the book.
There, I said it: I just didn’t enjoy it. I wanted, so much, to love it. And I think it has much to recommend it. I think it makes great material for teaching tenth grade English, or American foreign and trade policies. I just don’t think it’s one of much enjoyment.