Pico Iyer Journeys

Death of a Globalized Salesman

The vast empty spaces of the desert stand, of course, for the holographic projections that now determine Alan’s (and America’s) destiny, while Saudi Arabia, a Puritan kingdom where everyone seems to be boozing on the sly, is the perfect Other that constantly confounds and defeats its New World visitors. In the long, empty days Alan befriends a penguin-shaped young Saudi who tools around in a 30 year-old Caprice and sports Oakley sunglasses above his handmade sandals (he once spent a year in Birmingham, Alabama); he meets lonely expats and looks in on an embassy debauch where a man in a space suit is “feigning weightlessness.” Every detail perfectly advances a vision of American aspiration at a time of economic collapse and midlife crisis: just two floors below a gleaming condo in the desert that speaks for the virtual future that the Saudis (and Americans) are counting on is another room where 50 foreign laborers are squeezed into a tiny space, exchanging blows over a discarded cellphone.

Yet even at home, we come to see, Alan has been living in a house for sale where he’s taken for a “ghost”; he’s run out of money to pay for his daughter’s college bills, and the only one who ever fights for him is his “constantly cruel ex-wife.” Over a long career working for Fuller Brush and Schwinn bicycles and dozens of others, he’s somehow encouraged the outsourcing of manufacturing that has led to both him and his country becoming redundant. In Florida, he eats from vending machines and in his home in suburban Boston he watches old Red Sox DVDs again and again. At the book’s opening, his neighbor Charlie, who’s recently discovered Transcendentalism and speaks (as Mailer might have) of “grandeur and awe and holiness,” walks into a lake to his death. In Alan’s America, even Walden Pond has become a cesspool.

Eggers’s command of this middle-management landscape is so sure—and his interest in the battle between humanity and technology so insistent—that his book might almost be a De Lillo novel written for the i-phone Generation, though delivered by De Lillo’s more open-hearted and Midwestern nephew.  Eggers’s inhabiting of the terms and tics of a distinctly American consciousness is as remarkable as, in earlier books, his channeling of Sudanese and Syrian sensibilities; he knows how businessmen, faced with a terrible proposal, will say, “Let’s table it for now,” he registers how door-to-door salesman point out, “A stranger rings, a friend knocks,” he cites the wisdom of Jack Welch. To a world of glass and emptiness—“I feel like a pane of glass that needs to be shattered,” Alan tells another consultant—he brings his rather old-fashioned interest in neighborhood values and service. And his Saudi Arabia sounds to me note-perfect, from the soldier seated in a beach chair next to a Humvee, soaking his feet in an inflatable pool, to the secret drag-races in the desert.

Nearly every one of the book’s events carries a symbolic resonance, not always oblique: as soon as Alan is approached, first by a Danish and then by a Middle Eastern woman, he turns disengaged and, in fact, impotent, and when finally he does go into a local hospital for his cyst, he’s worked on by a team made up of Chinese, English, German, Italian, Russian and mongrel Lebanese medical professionals. Yet underneath the global blueprint is a story human enough to draw blood. Anyone who’s traveled will recognize the plaintiveness and vague menace of the Saudis who loom before Alan, or the likable Saudi Panza who tries to scroll to a Fleetwood Mac song on his iPod as Alan prepares to tell him another corny joke. The buddy movie is clearly a significant form for Eggers, but, like Hollywood, he has upgraded it from the frat-boy do-goodism of You Shall Know Our Velocity to a vehicle that features a young Moslem and an aging American, and asks what happens when velocity gives out.

At first glance, a reader might wonder what a story about a flailing American businessman trying to win a contract over the Chinese in the Saudi desert has to do with Eggers’s celebrated memoir about losing both his parents within three months at the age of 21, and tending to his younger brother. But the strength of all his work comes from his sense of loss and pain, mixed with his decidedly American wish to try to bring his orphaned characters to a provisional shelter. It’s Eggers’s tragic sense–“Were scars the best evidence of living?” we read here—that gives fiber and nuance to his wish for something better, and ensures that his hope for some kind of understanding never becomes merely sentimental. Alan speaks for something essential to Eggers—and poignant–in his constant oscillation between the wish to do the right thing and his awareness that he doesn’t have a clue what the right thing might be.

Like Mailer, in other words, Eggers has a vision, with the result that there’s nothing random about the projects he takes on or the ways he pursues them; to the casual observer, he may seem all over the place, but underneath the wild diversity of his interests is a profoundly searching and meticulous craftsman who could hardly be more focused. A Hologram for the King is, among other things, an anguished investigation into how and where American self-confidence got lost and—in the central word another lonely expat uses for Alan—“defeated.” At one point, a fellow passenger on a plane mentions to Alan how even the Statue of Liberty is depicted moving forward, so committed is America to the future tense; four pages on, Alan recalls being told, at length, about how an all-important contract for blast-resistant glass in Freedom Tower, built on the ashes of the World Trade Center, has been given to a Chinese company, working (to compound the insult) from an American patent.

At times, the book becomes almost a nostalgic lament for a time when life had stakes and people worked with their hands, knew struggle. Alan’s father, a “Greatest Generation” veteran who still has shrapnel in his lower back, rages at his son for helping to take business abroad; the deeper sorrow is the suggestion that moral clarity and a sense of purpose also got outsourced in the process. As he mourns the decline of a time when men were more in touch with their animal selves and an outer wilderness could save us from a wilderness within, Alan reminisces about the hunting trips he took with his dad as a boy, thinks about the time he took his daughter to see one of the last launches of the Space Shuttle at Cape Canaveral (and they met an old-fashioned, in fact Maileresque American hero and explorer, an astronaut). It’s as if Eggers himself is asking where the soaring idealism and drive of a Mailer are now, and how we can begin to revive them. When Alan is invited by a local friend to stay in a Saudi mountain village, he tries to reach back to a world of John Wayne certainties, cradling a gun, and, all too inevitably, blows up the one human connection he’s so gratefully made.

This may all sound a little too much like metaphor—or romanticism—but Eggers’s sense of loss is hard-earned and his feeling for his characters as affectingly real as his epigraph from Beckett (“It is not every day that we are needed”).  At times, his book reminds one of Douglas Coupland’s deeply wistful tales of Generation X’s search for belief and direction, at other times of the weightless suburban drifters of Haruki Murakami’s world, all but longing (in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, say) for an earlier time of intensity and war. A sense of impermanence and possible disaster is always very close in Eggers’s work—here it’s sometimes devouring—and that is what makes his good nature and hopefulness so rending (and so necessary). Every now and then he pulls back from his engaging, if often stumbling characters to suggest a larger order: “The work of man is done behind the back of the natural world. When nature notices, and can muster the energy, it wipes the slate clean again.”

In the end, what makes A Hologram for the King shine is the conviction with which Eggers plunges into the kind of regular working American we don’t see enough in contemporary fiction, and gives voice and heft to Alan’s struggles in an Information Economy in which he has no information and there’s not much of an economy. At one point, with nothing to do, Alan starts writing to his daughter to try to get her to forgive her mother, the ex-wife who has all but destroyed him. “People think you’re able to help them and usually you can’t,” he tries. “And so it becomes a process of choosing the one or two people you try hardest not to disappoint.” One could hardly find a more naked description of Eggers’s theme, and his passage out of youth into a qualified determination. Such is the fragility of Alan’s situation, though, that even his modest hope seems far from guaranteed, mostly because Alan is such a non-virtual man, the opposite of a hologram.

Norman Mailer probably hated the fact that many of us consider his great, essential narrative to be his “non-fiction novel” about Gary Gilmore, The Executioner’s Song; the whole long, tragic story is delivered with extraordinary documentary fidelity and restraint, and yet only someone as obsessed as Mailer was with rebellion and possession could invest the tale with such intensity. In much the same way, Eggers has developed an exceptional gift for telling the lives of others so as to offer us, simultaneously, the story of globalism as it develops and to unfold a much more archetypal tale of struggle and loneliness and drift. Public and private explorations come together, and as this necessary author grows wiser, and more melancholy, evolving from telling  his own story to voicing America’s,  he might be asking us how we can ever bring the best parts of our past into a planetary future.

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