Study Guide

A Hologram for the King Isolation

By Dave Eggers

Isolation

The team could get there without him, the team could set up without him. And so why was he there at all? (II.42.11)

Alan's not only separated from his team by age and experience, he's also on the outside because he lacks that tech chops to do anything useful. Soon, awkward conversation leads Alan to question his whole purpose on planet Earth. Challenging professional situations will do that to a person.

Sometimes he watched the potential buyers come in, leave. He peeked through his office window like an imbecile […] One visitor, a professional woman in a long leather coat, saw him through the window as she was walking away, down the driveway. She turned to the realtor and said, I think I just saw a ghost. (II.74.16)

Alan remembers the dehumanizing experience of putting his house on the market and sitting through open houses. By the time he cleans the place up and makes it worthy to show to the outside world, there's not a trace of him left there. It's no wonder that this potential buyer sees him as a hanger-on from the Otherworld. Alan certainly feels like he's no longer a part of his old world anyway.

Alan stood in the middle of the tent, unsure of exactly what to do with himself. He didn't have any work in particular to do, or phone calls to make. He retreated to the remaining corner, sat down, and did nothing. (XIV.54.99)

This is some interesting scene blocking here. We know that Alan really doesn't know why he's even in a tent in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert or what his real purpose with the Reliant team might be. The awkwardness increases when he has to spend time with his team, who are decades younger than him. His personal discomfort ratchets up when he realizes that the young folks are, uh, bonding quite well without him.

They had no interest in manufacturing or the type of person-to-person sales he'd spent his life perfecting. None of them had been even vaguely involved in such things. None of them started, as he had, selling actual objects to actual people. Alan looked at their faces. Cayley and her upturned nose. Brad and his caveman brow. Rachel and her tiny lipless mouth. (XVII.30.130)

Alan's never going to fit in with his crew, especially since he sees them as almost a totally different species. The usual generation gap would be bad enough, but Alan has lived in a completely alternate corporate-economic system. His experience is in manufacturing (but that's dead now); theirs is in a technology so intangible there's no point in talking about it. For Alan, true communication is a lost cause.

They were married in a breathless hurry, but Alan felt early on that she was looking though him. Who was he? He sold bicycles. They were mismatched. He was limited. He tried to rise to her level, to broaden his mind and see things as she did, but he was working with crude tools. (XXI.50.175)

It's an understatement to say that Ruby and Alan are mismatched; they're actually on different planes of existence. Alan feels both loneliness and guilt because of this. He's pretty sure that he's ruined Ruby's life and caused her to be an awful person because he couldn't be the kind of man she needed. That's a lot of baggage for Alan to haul through life.

"It is so strange. But it's so quiet that most of the time I love it. The utter lack of social responsibility. You have no familial responsibilities, no real friend responsibilities. I'm lucky to have one guest a month. It's monastic, which is a relief." (XXII.36.183)

Hanne points out the silver lining of Saudi Arabia's bizarre lack of cultural context. She can be utterly self-centered there, worrying only about her existence and pleasure. It's a self-imposed isolation that protects her from the responsibilities of the outside world. We're not sure how Alan feels about such isolation at this moment, but he does choose it over reconnecting with the Western world by the end of the work.

There really must be something in that growth on his neck, he thought. The growth was too close to his spinal cord, and had altered the passage of signals from his brain to the rest of him. It would explain his inability to read all human signals. (XXII.72.187)

Wouldn't it be fantastic if we could locate a small something on our body responsible for all the stupid things we'd done in life? You know, something that could easily be removed and our equilibrium restored? Alan has that hope for his neck lump. In his mind, it can't be a coincidence that this thing has appeared at the moment he's become socially inept. His reasoning here shows that Alan can feel his inability to connect with others, but really has no good explanation for it—and no solutions.

But now he was something else. He stood in the same spot where he once would have taken great pleasure in something…and he smiled in a way that he hoped would be seen as warm. But he felt no warmth. He wanted only to go home. He wanted to be alone. He wanted to watch his Red Sox DVDs while drinking Hanne's moonshine. (XXII.101.189)

Alan's years of "bad luck" have taken their toll on him. He feels dead inside, unable to respond to the outside world or to emotional stimuli. It sounds to us like classic depression, but Eggers' way of describing this deep sense of alienation makes us feel that there's something more going on. It's almost as if there's simply no place in the world left for Alan. Well, except for the couch in front of the TV.

There were Aston Martins to test, there were prop planes to briefly take command of. But more than anything there was fishing. The Schwinn guys fostered a culture of fishing, on Lake Michigan and anywhere else. There were weekends up on Lake Geneva with the VPs, with a chosen few of the best retailers. Alan missed all that. (XXIV.80.210)

It's a little harder to feel sorry for Alan when we glimpse this former life of executive privilege, but we get the point: all of that is gone now. He truly felt at home with these guys, in that yacht, or driving that expensive car. It's leaner times, and the camaraderie has also disappeared. It would make anyone sigh.

From their vantage point, it looked impossibly small and fragile, the kind of settlement that would be swept away in seconds by a flash flood, buried utterly by any kind of minor avalanche. It seemed a ludicrous place to live for a day or two, let alone for centuries. (XXVII.74.263)

The trip to Yousef's ancestral village gives Alan a new perspective on the world. It's man vs. nature out there, and Alan's feeling very doomed. Even on a planet with billions of people, he can envision a time when nature wins and every fragile human thing is swept away. It's chilling, really.