To speak of ventriloquism in relation to fiction is like focusing on the wirework of marionettes. Yes, it is the twitch and flick of these threads that bring a doll to life, but it is what is there, too — the homely or intricately-made little human stand-in — that gives the show its rough magic, its spooky glory. Without it there would be no there there.
In most of his best-known works, Dave Eggers has specialized in giving us what is really there. From his own orphaned self in the glorious “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” to a Sudanese Lost Boy adrift in the United States in “What is the What,” to a Syrian emigrant who has lost everything in “Zeitoun,” Eggers has been drawn to intense stories of loss; where often, all that is left, when a catastrophe has claimed everything, is the story.
To tell these tales — and others — Eggers has developed an astonishing array of registers. He can be a bulging maximalist, sentences spilling over in perfect mimicry of the African novel; he can also be a Didion-eyed journalist, practically invisible, listening to the terrible accretion of loss in a man’s life. He can be giddy, child-like, insinuating, and plaintive; he can be all of these things at once.
In his latest novel, though, Eggers is quietly attempting something very ambitious. “A Hologram For the King” is a tale of emptiness, where the losses are of the more everyday kind — debts to pay, ex-wives to regret — even if the setting is exotic. In fact, if you describe the plot of this book — a salesman goes to Saudia Arabia, armed with a hologram, to pitch IT service to a king — it’ll probably provoke the kind of empathy shut-down that existed towards bankers . . . well, even now.
On top of all this, Eggers has put aside the most dazzling piece of equipment within his narrative arsenal: the first-person voice. Alan Clay, the book’s middle-aged hero, does not get to be a Frank Bascombe truth-talker, or a rascally bad lieutenant in the global army of 21st century Willie Lomans selling services to new markets. In “A Hologram for the King,” we hear and experience Alan thinking the old-fashioned way: in the third person.
Operating within this restriction Eggers proves it is not, in fact, a handicap at all. Alan feels like Eggers’s most fully-realized character to date. He is tender and principled, yet desperate for some measure of recouping. As with Miller’s Loman, Alan’s neediness earns pity that over the course of the novel, Eggers stokes to a remorseful kind of empathy.
Alan’s predicament resembles that of so many Americans. In his mid-50s, with a career of making and selling behind him, he has washed up on the Red Sea through a series of subtractions. He left college early, quit as a Fuller Brush salesman, turned his back on his father’s union background when he helped Schwinn and other bicycle makers move their manufacturing overseas.
And so Alan has, in a way, made himself obsolete; something mirrored by his home life. He and his wife split long ago, and Alan has spent so much time away from home on business his daughter only needs him now for tuition, and on this account, he is also failing her. A foolishly optimistic attempt to start a line of bicycles made in America has claimed all of his savings. All Alan has left is his house, which he has been trying, unsuccessfully, to sell.
And so here we find Alan, in a desert, awaiting the arrival of the king hoping to sell not bicycles but the air itself: For what else is a hologram? Eggers maps the Beckett-like warble of this errand onto the plot itself. Every day, Alan and his team of younger cohorts journey two hours into the desert for a meeting with one of the king’s consorts, and wait. And then wait some more.
The rhythms and texture of their failures will be instantly familiar to anyone who has traveled to the gulf on business. It’s all here: the ghastly heat, which bears down on you like something personal; the drivers and fixers who become so important. The way every conversation feels to proceed in some sort of code, and the menagerie of western grifters, professionals and who-knows-what drawn to working on what appears to be a blank slate.
If “A Hologram for the King” merely showed us this it would be a stylish, good book. But narrating in discrete paragraphs, some as finely spun as prose poems, Eggers drags three layers of story forward. There is Alan in the desert, getting progressively into more trouble; there is Alan in the past, losing his way in a career meant to liberate him but which only further entrapped him; and there is Alan, full of regrets, wondering whether his family will ever boomerang back to him.
The true genius of this book is that as we careen toward its final pages, these stories all collapse into one complex tale: the point at which a man’s need for love from home and his need to be effective in business meet. Here is the invisible hand of the market as the marionette strings from above. Yes it makes the world twitch and dance. But it cannot, as yet, control a man’s heart, and in “A Hologram for the King,” Eggers has given us a sad and beautiful story where that counts for something.John Freeman is editor of Granta magazine and the author of “The Tyranny of E-mail.”