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A Hologram For The King

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Dave Eggers’ new novel is funny, engaging and maybe not quite what you might think.

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Alan Clay, a technology consultant and the protagonist of Dave Eggers’ new novel, has a presentation to make to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Problem is, the king doesn’t seem to be around much, so no one quite knows when the presentation’s going to happen, and the tent that Alan and his young team have been assigned — in the middle of the construction site that is to become King Abdullah Economic City — has poor Wi-Fi and sporadic air con. On top of that, Alan has a daughter whose college education rests on his ability to close the deal, and a growth on his neck that he’s pretty sure is going to kill him.

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The presentation that Alan is hoping to make is of a new form of holographic technology that will revolutionise the communications at the KAEC in some mysterious way. But Eggers, author of Zeitoun and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, stuffs the book full of other holograms, too: the shimmering mirage of the unbuilt city; the never-quite-bodily presence of the king; and Alan himself, whose sexless existence as an ageing divorcé and accelerating obsolescence in a younger, hungrier workforce have made him unsure of his own corporeality and purpose.

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There is also the progressively spectral and desperate presence of American commerce embodied by Alan, bullishly attempting to impose itself on a new economic world order that is increasingly disinterested in what it has to offer. And hell, why not: the temporary fragility of the human race, forging a parasitical existence on a planet that will one day, Eggers muses, want rid of the itch (Alan’s surname, Clay, is notably the stuff from which man is formed in both the Bible and Koran).

Fundamentally though, Eggers’ book — a finalist at the 2012 National Book Awards — is an entertaining read, aided in large part by Alan’s interactions with a new-found friend: a young Saudi taxi driver called Yousef, who helps him make some sense of the strange new world in which he finds himself, and the contradictions embodied and embraced by those that live in it (an appealing device that works in much the same way as Jonathan Safran Foer’s eccentric Ukrainian guide in his 2002 book Everything Is Illuminated).

Of course, whether you take the novel as an eccentric adventure story or a weightier allegory about enterprise and humanity is up to you, but the messages are there if you want to see them.

A Hologram For The King (Hamish Hamilton) is available now. 

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