Sometimes Dave Eggers' accomplishments off the page can eclipse his literary talent. He has launched an energetic network of tutoring centers for young readers and writers —including Chicago's 826CHI — and established an innovative, socially engaged publishing empire, the San Francisco-based McSweeney's. But Eggers' soon-to-be-released seventh book, “A Hologram for the King,” is perhaps some of his most ambitious work yet.
His exhilarating, original memoir, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," about taking care of his little brother after the cancer-related deaths of their parents, exploded onto the best-seller list when it was published in 2000. Segueing between his novels like "What is the What," about the Sudanese refugee experience, and his more journalistic "Zeitoun," Eggers has managed to build a career as a great storyteller who is politically engaged and empathic.
At a reading from the novel to support the efforts of 826CHI last year, I was prepared to be emotionally moved by Eggers' story and was astonished to hear the wry — but never ironic — wit, the distinctive voice that had matured since "Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius." Eggers understands the pressures of American downward-mobility, and in the protagonist of his novel, Alan Clay, has created an Everyman, a post-modern Willy Loman.
As the novel opens, Alan Clay wakes up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, "virtually broke, nearly unemployed, the proprietor of a one-man consulting firm run out of his home office." His solution to stave off poverty and keep his daughter in college is to set up a holographic telephone-conference system for King Abdullah.
The novel operates on a grand and global scale, but it also is intimate. On the eve of the novel's publication, Eggers took time to chat via email.
Q: Can you explain the title?
A: The book's protagonist, Alan Clay, has been sent to Saudi Arabia to help present a new technology, called telepresence, to King Abdullah. Telepresence is basically a holographic version of Skype — a way to hold international meetings where you can seem to be in a room with someone thousands of miles away. The hope is that if the King is impressed enough with the technology, he'll give an enormous IT contract to Alan's company, and Alan's commission will set him up for life. But first the King has to show up.
Q: Two of your most recent books, "What is the What" and "Zeitoun," were nonfiction, and required so much research. "Hologram for the King" seems so authentically set in Saudi Arabia that one would think you had to do much research. So, why did you decide to write it as a novel rather than nonfiction?
A: Well, the book is set in a real Saudi Arabia, but everything that happens to Alan and everyone he meets is fictional. I was really anxious to get back to straight-up fiction, where I could write whatever I wanted. And in this case I'd been thinking of this character, plotting out his life and his current state, a few years before I heard about the King Abdullah Economic City. Because it's mostly an idea right now, the idea of a city, the idea of the future, it became a fitting physical setting for Alan's internal journey. But this could have taken place in any remote or barren place a businessman might have been sent.
Q: How did you decide to set the novel Saudi Arabia? Did you travel there to do research?
A: I had heard of these new developments King Abdullah has been building, including the one that Alan finds himself in. King Abdullah Economic City is supposed to provide for a post-oil Saudi Arabia, but when I was there, a few years ago, the building was at a standstill. The global economic meltdown had affected even Abdullah's plans, and the city that bears his name was not happening. There were just a few buildings rising from the desert ... and that made for a very surreal and darkly existential landscape.
Q: Your protagonist, Alan Clay, seems like he could have walked out of a John Cheever or John Updike novel. He resembles Willy Loman. Did you have literary models for him?
A: Once I knew who I was writing about, I did go back and reread "Death of a Salesman," which is still so electric on the page, and I read other books about similar men in crisis. There are similarities between any salesmen: the veneer of optimism being the first one, and of course that creates an interesting duality when there's very little to be optimistic about.
Q: How did you conceive Alan Clay as a character? He has a very human balance of frustration and optimism.
A: He's got reason to be frustrated. He's been trying to get a business off the ground, making bicycles in the U.S. again, but he gets laughed out of every bank. At every turn, he's considered anachronistic, but he's sure, at least sometimes, that he still has something to offer. It was a long process, creating him, given I've been working on nonfiction and biographies for a while; getting to that point where he felt fully real to me ... was a long road but really satisfying when I got there.
Q: Alan is, in many ways, Everyman — a guy struggling to keep up in a changing world, where he always seems to be losing ground. Is he aware of this?
A: For the most part, he's all too aware of it. He doesn't have a lot of marketable skills in the current world. He knows sales, doing deals over meals and golf, but he's technologically illiterate, and the one thing he knows something about — manufacturing — well, most of that's being done elsewhere. So it's like being an expert at manned moon landings. It's not so useful anymore.
Q: Alan Clay spent years working for the Schwinn Bicycle Co. before it began outsourcing. Why a bicycle company?
A: I always loved the idea that Schwinns were made right there in Chicago. They were built there until the '80s, and to some extent that's been forgotten. I've been asking Chicago-born friends my age about this, and very few of them remember that at all. But it was a very powerful thing, to know you could see them loading the bikes onto trucks right there on the West Side. Schwinn has such a fabled name in the history of American business, and I wanted Alan to have a manufacturing background, so it made sense to have Alan spend time there. I wanted him to have been part of a great company at its heyday and to have been unwittingly complicit in its downfall.
Q: The novel upends many stereotypes about Saudi Arabia, particularly the idea that women, confined by religious and social restrictions, are passive. Could the romance in the novel really happen there today?
A: It absolutely could happen; I was careful to be sure it was possible. Saudi Arabia is oppressive in many ways, but people there will always find ways around any of the onerous restrictions. The many well-educated women of Saudi, in particular, are really adept at finding ways to circumvent the rules. I met a young man who regularly visited his girlfriend by wearing a burqa himself, sneaking in and out of the house by seeming to be a female friend of hers. Examples of that kind of almost comical subterfuge are endless.
Q: I don't want to give too much away, but Alan has some trouble with credit reports. How did you learn about this shady business?
A: Everyone I know has had the experience where you're trying to buy a house or get a business loan, and the one thing standing in your way is a credit score. And the credit score is so often affected by some random and meaningless thing, some late payment on a $12 charge. In Alan's case, a Banana Republic charge card he didn't even know he had has to some extent sealed his fate — which is something that happens every day. To me, this just demonstrates one of the ways we've done ourselves in; we've ceded our lives to these algorithms. And with it, courage has died. There are fewer and fewer people around willing to look beyond this almost entirely arbitrary number, the credit score. It means next to nothing, but in a world that increasingly has handed decision-making to computers, it determines everything. Every day, we ask computers for permission to do things. It's a self-created Orwellian situation that stifles growth and dehumanizes life. But I'm overstating it a little bit, I guess.
Q: How long did you work on the novel?
A: Three years, give or take. Wait, could it have been that long? What's wrong with me?
Q: Can you talk about your writing and revision process?
A: It varies widely book to book, but I'm a constant reviser. I edit and edit and edit. This one was a little different, in that I used to consider myself more of a maximalist: Successive drafts were longer and longer. But this book got shorter, benefiting, I think, from repeated prunings. I found myself removing so much of what was already implied, and there's great satisfaction in that.
Q: Were there any novels that served as inspiration for you as you worked on "A Hologram for the King"?
A: Well, I usually go in reverse, where I outline a book, or do whatever version of outlining I'm able to do, and then a year or so in, when I realize what the book's all about, I go and read or reread books that might share some of its DNA. In this case, I looked at Bowles' "The Sheltering Sky," Bellow's "Dangling Man" and "Herzog," Heller's "Something Happened," Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and, of course, when you're wading into existential waters, you have to reread Sartre and Beckett. Reading Beckett outside of college is a very different experience, I have to say. The man was funnier than I had previously been allowed to believe.
Q: Do you have a sense of what you would like readers to take away from the book after they close the last delicious page?
A: That's a tough one. I guess I hope they'll feel like they read a good book.
Elizabeth Taylor isthe Chicago Tribune's literary editor.
'A Hologram for the King'
By Dave Eggers
McSweeney's, 328 pages, $25
This piece ran in full in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email.
Like to read more? Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times