Dave Eggers can stick another pin in his map of the world with A Hologram For The King, a fairly colorless allegory about an American businessman staying in Saudi Arabia. While protagonist Alan Clay doesn’t have the stern stuff of the Ugly American, his saga in Eggers’ fourth novel communicates no great understanding, and it’s mulched over with travel cliché.
Eggers’ novel What Is The What fictionalized and adapted a story about the Lost Boys Of Sudan; similarly, A Hologram For The King takes its characters and narrative from a sheaf of Thomas Friedman’s New York Times op-ed columns. Alan, a long-out-of-work consultant and recession victim, is hired to secure a major contract for the King Abdullah Economic City development outside of the Saudi port city of Jeddah because he once knew the king’s nephew. When Abdullah misses their initial appointment, Alan and his Reliant coworkers are shown to a tent outside headquarters to dwell in the kind of idleness that’s taken in fiction to be meaningful, but in life, hardly ever is. The increasingly unrealistic delay in their presentation to the king affords Alan time to note that the global economic meltdown has even touched this desert oasis, and he turns to his driver Yousef to figure out what it all means.
As a 21st-century update of V.S. Naipaul’s postcolonial novel A Bend In The River, A Hologram For The King casts a faint shimmer over Alan as a self-appointed mentor to the young Saudis he meets and the improbable love interests he finds among the women of Jeddah. Alan remains convinced he knows the country better than some of its inhabitants, but unlike Naipaul’s shopkeeper, he isn’t self-aware enough to guess how his outsider status might be perceived. Eggers double-underlines this troublesome side of the Economic City’s purported savior in a scene where Yousef playfully accuses Alan of being too eager to invade the country—then quickly backs away from getting too specific about his hosts’ complex feelings toward the American.
That blandness governs a novel where the glimpses of grappling bureaucracies that spit out platitudes and maintain the illusion of abundance are more perceptive than the human story. Eggers’ Saudi Arabia might as well be any other Middle Eastern country; it’s just the diorama in which the affable Alan gets his education, a pretext used to excuse his indelicate prying. For his lack of judgment alone, he’s cast as deserving of insight, even applauded for it, but his discoveries aren’t enough to make his errand meaningful. A story covered with current-events trappings without actually saying anything, A Hologram For The King takes itself too seriously even to explain, through Alan as proxy, why the king needs the hologram. Could that possibly be a sign?