America’s recent Great Recession, from which the economy’s “recovery” is still largely a matter of debate as seen through the eye of the individual beholder, hit the ranks of middle management particularly hard. Suddenly men and women of a certain age (generally those over 50) found themselves jobless and with little prospect of ever replacing their lost jobs with anything that paid anywhere near the wages they were accustomed to earning. Homes were lost, marriages ended, and dreams were forever shattered. Alan Clay, the main character of Dave Eggers’s A Hologram for the King, is one of those people.
The story begins this way: “Alan Clay woke up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It was May 30, 2010. He had spent two days on planes to get there.”
Alan is in Jeddah to sell King Abdullah a holographic teleconference system that could prove to be instrumental in winning for his company the entire IT contract for the King’s new economic city (which at the moment exists primarily on the drawing board and in the minds of the king and his advisers). But the 54-year-old Clay, formerly a key management player in the Schwinn bicycle company when bicycles were still manufactured in the U.S., really knows and understands very little about the software he is there to peddle to the king. He is in the kingdom to introduce the presentation largely because of his previous connections to a distant cousin of the king’s. The king, however, is not a man to be rushed, and for now Alan and his team of four software experts spend their days in a large tent waiting on the man to show up for the software demonstration they hope will win them his business. And they play solitaire, and they sleep, and they wonder if the meeting will ever happen.
Alan, though, is not content to play the waiting game. He has befriended his personal driver, a young man partially educated in Alabama, and the two of them explore aspects of Saudi Arabian society that most Westerners are never allowed to glimpse, much less immerse themselves in to the degree that Alan manages to do it. But Alan wonders what happened to him – how did he end up in Saudi Arabia with his future hopes so closely linked to a product he knows so little about? What happens to him if the king is unimpressed? What happens if the king never shows up? How did it come to this?
Entertaining as it is, A Hologram for the King manages to take a long hard look at the Great Recession through the eyes of one of its typical victims, a man who is unlikely ever to recover all that the recession snatched from him. Perhaps the best that men like Alan can hope for is to recover their personal dignity and self-worth – but that is not an easy thing for an American to do in a place like Saudi Arabia.