“There would be a time when the world created people stronger than them. When all of this got worked out. But until then there would be women and men like Hanne and Alan who were imperfect and had no path toward perfection.”
In the first pages of Dave Egger’s A Hologram for the King, we meet Alan Clay and discover that he is truly screwed. The story takes place in Saudi Arabia. Clay represents the Reliant corporation in a bid to supply communications gear for the construction of King Abdullah Economic City. His team is to present to the King, in person.
The imperfect Alan Clay is middle aged, divorced, in debt, self-indulgent and self-deceiving, alternating between ruminations on his past failures and optimistic but unfounded visions of future success. His behavior ranges from unwise to uncomfortably bizarre. At every step, he does the wrong thing. The exasperated reader urges him, like a wayward brother, to get his act together, for once, to buck up and make something of himself. But, it’s too late. His path towards bigger and brighter things has come to an end and the inevitable decline begun.
The ruminations encompass Clay’s broken marriage to the spirited Ruby and the upbringing of Kit, their daughter, to whom Clay has promised another year of college tuition. Clay’s father, a stern World War II vet, makes disapproving appearances, especially when it comes to Clay’s involvement in outsourcing production for the Schwinn Bicycle Company and the aftermath of that decision.
The Reliant deal is Clay’s shot at redemption – his last opportunity to make good – to provide for his daughter, to pay off his debts and restart his flagging career. It’s supposed to be a cinch, but like Kafka’s hero struggling to gain access to the Castle, a thicket of baroque entanglements, obstacles and complications block the way.
Shame is the dominant emotional undercurrent of the story and this makes for disquieting reading, as does Alan Clay’s role as a symbol for an America in decline. The allegory for America is so tightly constructed that nearly every action or utterance of the character echoes with references to America’s missteps and the disarray in which she finds herself mired.
A book so heavy with shame and decline might be a tough sell. To the last, Alan Clay still clings to an ever slimmer thread of hope. But, by that time we’ve seen enough to know that it’s over. The punch at the end is all the harder knowing that the hero goes out with a whimper. After that, we’re left with shame.
It’s a shame that America squandered the incredible wealth of the 20th century. It’s a shame that the middle class is an endangered species. It’s a shame that the American dream turned out to be a cheaply made consumer product sold by the unscrupulous or deluded to the credulous and hopeful around the world. It would be a great shame if that dream was just an illusion all along.