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If you've seen the trailer for the film adaptation of A Hologram for the King, you might think that this book is going to be a life-affirming laugh riot. After all, the trailer suggests a plot about lovable Tom Hanks making his way through the desert, having hilarious cultural misunderstandings, and finding love.
But you'd be wrong. This book delivers a whole lot in the way of emotions—existential angst, your loneliness, your fear of death, your confusion about life—but it's no kind of life-affirming laugh riot.
If you paid attention in your American Lit 101 classes, you'll find something eerily familiar about Dave Eggers' A Hologram for the King. Novelist Pico Iyer called it "a kind of "Death of a Globalized Salesman." (Source)
And we think Iyer's reference to Arthur Miller's play couldn't be more spot on. In Miller's work, aging salesman Willy Loman overvalues his importance and success in the workplace to prop up his failing pursuit of the American Dream. This does not end well (the ending involves hallucinations and suicide).
Eggers' protagonist Alan Clay also finds himself at the back end of his sales career without much to show for it. He's devoted himself to his corporate masters for the last twenty years, including participating in the shady practice of offshoring American manufacturing jobs to boost profit margins.
Like Willy, Alan finds himself irrelevant in an uncaring world, wondering who he is and just how he got to this place. (The film adaptation of Hologram actually has Tom Hanks "singing" the Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime" to hammer the identity crisis home). But unlike Willy, Alan doesn't kill himself in response to bad luck and bad choices.
Instead, he takes one more shot at the American Dream by heading to Saudi Arabia as head of an IT crew. They'll try to sell holographic conferencing technology to King Abdullah for the development of his new city by the Red Sea. Does Alan know jack about IT? No, he does not. But he does know the king's nephew, and he's relying on his old-school sales skills to carry the day.
It doesn't work out that way…which brings us back to Lit 101. Because Death of A Salesman isn't the only mega-famous work being referenced in A Hologram For the King.
Eggers relies heavily on Sam Beckett's existentialist play Waiting for Godot to give Hologram its narrative shape and thematic talking points. Beckett's characters Didi and Gogo wait (and wait and wait) for someone called Godot to appear and give meaning to their lives. Godot never shows up, though. (He doesn't even have the decency to call.)
Eggers takes this framework and applies it to a character trying to make sense of what his life has become in the post 9/11 American economy and culture.
Beckett, who wrote his play in the aftermath of World War II, wanted us to think about how we react when our whole world has been shattered and we're left to pick up the pieces. Eggers follows in this tradition by asking a truly 21st-century question: how do we create a meaningful life when everything we valued before is worth nothing?
So: is this book a jaunty romp about a dude finding himself on the shores of the Red Sea, learning to seize the day, and having epiphanies about how to live his best life? Um, no. Not really.
But is it a seriously moving book about middle age and existential angst and a crazy-clever riff on two of the most important plays of the 20th century? Yep, sure is.
"Wait a minute," we hear you say. "The reason why I should care about this book isn't because it's a seriously moving book about middle age and existential angst? And it isn't because it's a crazy-clever riff on two of the most important plays of the 20th century?"
To which we answer: nope. There's actually a whole other reason to care about this book—and it doesn't even have anything to do with Tom Hanks.
Eggers is peering into something super-important and relevant throughout A Hologram for the King. He's examining the economic and social forces that define the culture that we're living in at this very moment. Like right now.
Alan Clay suffers from an economy that made a hard transition from manufacturing to more technologically-based industries. He's made irrelevant by hardcore efficiency practices, which include shipping manufacturing and supply chains to developing countries. He has arguments with his father about the decline of the Made In America brand. He ponders over the fact that outsourcing production has cost American workers their jobs.
If any of these issues sound familiar, it's because you've been paying attention to the news. These topics aren't just trending, they're dominating a lot of the economic discussion right now. And they're some of the major historical issues of our day. (It feels weird to think of events in or near our lifetime as historically important. But hey—significant stuff has to happen in someone's lifetime.)
A Hologram For the King is a book with its finger on the pulse of contemporary issues…and it can give you some insight into how the terrifying, cold world of economics works.
Want to how why the Baby Boomer generation rationalized outsourcing? Alan's Clay's POV might help you. Want to know a bit about how Chinese companies' international power increased? The stories of Alan's colleagues might give you some insight. Interested in why so many people want to get manufacturing jobs back on American soil? Alan's struggles to keep up with his younger employees will probably clue you in.
In short: this is the kind of book that's going to be cared about not only by future literature professors, but also by future economists and historians. And that's why you should care about it right now.
Dave Eggers, Wit Extraordinaire
Take a moment to acquaint yourself with Eggers' bio at the quirky, sarcastic, funny McSweeney's website—and then spend some time browsing the pages. You won't regret it.
Check out David Eggers' Pirate Supply Store, his innovative approach to solving a space problem and increasing literacy for kids.
Hologram, the Movie
IMDB gives us the lowdown on the movie production of Eggers' novel.
Break out the Popcorn
Here's the official trailer for the movie production of A Hologram for the King. Tom Hanks ftw.
A Review Fit for a King
The New York Times Pico Iyer puts Eggers' work into the context of modern American writing and Eggers' own previous works. Good bio information on Eggers to help you understand the importance of his contributions to the literary world.
Cressida Leyshon's interview with Eggers about Hologram gives some good insight into the author's thoughts about his protagonist Alan Clay. There's also a good story about the physical publication of the book.
Watch Eggers slay the TED Talk format with his prize-winning presentation on how to spread literacy. There are pirates in this one.
Fighting for Social Justice, One Story at a Time
David Eggers and Mimi Lok pair up to create "Voices of Witness," a series of books that tell the stories of people around the world who have experienced injustice.
Too Cool for School
Morning Edition interview with David Eggers about his literary publication, Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern.
Eggers talks about the fate of irony after 9/11—the idea that we can be "humorous and knowing"—by chatting about his book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.