Dave Eggers’ new novel, A Hologram For The King, (due out from McSweeney’s June 28) is set in Saudi Arabia. There we meet Alan Clay, a middle-aged sales executive whose life has been decimated by the new global economy. Alan’s job is to convince King Abdullah to let an American firm provide the information technology for the King’s new economic city. In the process, Alan hopes to stave off foreclosure, pay his daughter’s college tuition, and rebuild his own life.
We started this interview over drinks (beer for Dave, ginger ale for me) and continued over email. In the bar there was a Giants baseball game on the television and a special on ribs. They didn’t usually serve ribs and Dave said if he was in a restaurant and ribs were an option then he would usually order that. So he did. I ordered the fish and chips, which weren’t bad.
The Rumpus: A Hologram for The King is your first imagined-from-scratch book in a while. In a lot of ways it seems like a real departure from the last book we talked about, Zeitoun. So I guess the question would be, Why a novel set in Saudi Arabia?
Dave Eggers: Well, about four years ago I had one of those moments where you think, Huh, that’s an interesting framework for a novel. My brother-in-law had just been to Saudi Arabia with his company, and he told me about these cities that King Abdullah is trying to construct from scratch, these centers of education and manufacturing and other catalysts for a post-oil economy. I was fascinated by the idea of American businesspeople coming to these nascent cities in the desert, trying to get in on the ground floor. That was the start of it at least, and it gelled with some ideas I was having about this aging businessman who’s painted himself into a corner.
Rumpus: That’s your protagonist, Alan Clay. He’s middle-aged, with a background in sales, management and cost cutting, but he’s been downsized himself, and is having a hard time getting work. He’s fifty-four years old and believes that no one is interested in his services anymore. Though he also presents himself as an optimist.
Eggers: I think he presents himself as an optimist because optimism is the necessary veneer of a salesman, right? Alan started out as a Fuller Brush salesman, going door to door selling household products, and when he did that, he had to act like he was selling happiness, security, possibility—and he was good at it.
Rumpus: He’s a joke-teller still. He knows how to charm people. You have jokes in there that I’ve never heard, but must be old standards.
Eggers: It’s strange that the telling of those types of jokes has gone away, because they’re still funny. You set up a funny situation, you deliver a surprising punchline. Alan knows a million of them and uses them effectively to break the ice. It was one of the tools of a salesman like Alan.
Rumpus: Alan spent a bunch of years at Schwinn, which I didn’t realize was based in Chicago.
Eggers: That’s a fascinating thing, right? They made Schwinn bikes on the west side of Chicago till the mid-80s. Millions of bikes were built there, but then they started outsourcing to Taiwan and China, and eventually the brand lost its way. Alan looks back on the days when he could believe in what he was selling, and he wants that feeling back.
Rumpus: But he was complicit in the downfall of Schwinn.
Eggers: Sure, but he doesn’t quite understand that or own it. The hollowing out of the American manufacturing sector was a death by a thousand cuts — not strictly a top-down product of, say, the Bain Capitals of the world. Guys like Alan, who just were trying to cut costs, found offshore production irresistible, and they handed more and more of the supply chain over to these cheaper overseas factories. But Alan and others didn’t foresee the day when their own jobs were more or less superfluous.
Rumpus: So now he’s in a tent in Saudi Arabia, trying to sell something he knows almost nothing about.
Eggers: He’s trying to sell IT to the King of Saudi Arabia, with telepresence technology as a lure. It’s basically a way to have long-distance meetings using holograms. And Alan really doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s like a lot of men of his generation, who were trained to sell things, to make deals over dinner, golf courses, all that. But now things are very different, and he’s adrift. I have a lot of friends who work in management and consulting and manufacturing, and they talk a lot about men like Alan, and what to do with them. Their modes of working are sometimes outdated, and they’re hard to hire because they’re very expensive. Alan’s surrounded by young people who know more about IT than he does, who work cheaper, and who assume all things are made in China. They would never see it as fiscally plausible to hire someone like Alan. He costs too much and in Alan’s case, comes with a lot of baggage.
Rumpus: Alan’s kind of Beckettian; he’s waiting for the King. He keeps worrying that he can’t go on, but he does always go on. Is his persistence existential or peculiarly American?
Eggers: I don’t think it’s particularly American, but Alan’s predicament is unique, to some extent, to this particular moment. He’s a guy who knows manufacturing, the making and selling of actual objects by actual people, but now he’s in the middle of the desert trying to sell a hologram to a man who may or may not ever appear. He has no choice, though. Alan’s at a point in his life where he’s hoping that this one deal can solve a lot of his problems. He’s deeply in debt and has all kinds of pressures on him, but if he can just get a meeting with King Abdullah, he might be able to get back on his feet.
Rumpus: When we first meet Alan he’s just arrived to Saudi Arabia on behalf of Reliant, a large IT corporation. He once knew the King’s nephew and so Reliant thought he would be able to sell the King their services for the King Abdullah Economic City. Is that how business works there?
Eggers: The people I know in Saudi Arabia all say it’s difficult to get any business off the ground without some connection to the royal family. And the funny thing is if you do get something off the ground without the royals, and it’s successful, some royal will swoop in and, you know, strongly suggest he become your business partner. So Reliant thinks Alan will be useful, even though on the surface of things he’s not the most natural choice to send to Jeddah.
Rumpus: How particular do you feel this book is to Saudi Arabia? Or is it more about Alan? Could this story have been set anywhere?
Eggers: The book really isn’t about Saudi Arabia. It takes place there, but it could be any place where American multinationals might be doing business like this. I spent some time in Saudi and wanted to describe it accurately, even if most of the things that happen in the novel, at KAEC, are fictional. Of course, there’s some appeal to a character like Alan, who’s in a place of existential uncertainty, being placed in a blank landscape, with relatively few buildings and characters — in a city that may or may not come to be.
Rumpus: Alan has been trying to get back into manufacturing but is finding it difficult. He’s been bogged down by bureaucracy unable to build a simple yardwall at home, his credit ruined by a Banana Republic charge card. Are you trying to say something about obstacles thwarting innovation or the entrepreneurial spirit?
Eggers: I think Alan is like a lot of people who rightly or wrongly feel the current system is suffocating a lot of non-digital business ideas. A guy like Alan has knowledge and experience and maybe even a good idea, but can’t get a loan to save his life. He proposes making bikes in the U.S. again, but he gets laughed out of every bank, every venture capital firm. That’s a reality for a lot of guys like him, especially if they’re trying to do small-to-midscale manufacturing in the U.S. — meanwhile, some very dubious digital ideas have money thrown at them without hesitation.
Rumpus: And Alan’s got bad credit.
Eggers: Yeah, there’s the tyrannical rule of credit reports, which is really one of the more comically absurd elements of Alan’s life and modern life. These credit agencies wield incredible and absolute power, but their methods are highly questionable and often illogical. But whatever random score they post next to Alan’s name determines his fate for home ownership, loans, everything. It’s a terrifying, Orwellian thing that we came up with ourselves and we obey without question. I mean, a mysterious algorithm concocted by shadowy companies with no accountability or transparency that produces a single all-powerful number that no one questions but determines your economic fate? It’s maniacal.
Rumpus: Alan becomes fairly close friends with his guide and driver, Yousef. I’m really fond of the story of their friendship, but it’s fraught. For starters, Yousef’s father doesn’t approve of Americans. When Yousef brings Alan to his family home, some of the neighbors are suspicious. How much does their friendship mean?
Eggers: Saudi Arabia isn’t a country overrun with American tourists, so the Americans that do make it over there are seen with some skepticism. Yousef wants to like Alan, though. He presumes the best of him. Still, it’s clear that young Saudis are a lot like young Americans — they’re from a wealthy country, they’re ready to start their lives, but the opportunities aren’t there like they should be.
Rumpus: Sometimes I feel I can learn more from novels than from non-fiction. Fiction presents a more accessible window onto something that is true. It’s not an exact situation, it’s not journalism, but there’s a deeper truth, I think. I feel that way about this book. I feel like I learned something about Saudi Arabia and Saudi/American relations. Which leads me to two questions. Are you comfortable with that? And do you think it’s important that a novel teach something?
Eggers: I don’t think novels need to be instructive, but ideally you come away knowing something more about the world. That’s how I think about the writing of books, too. If I haven’t learned something in the process, then it’s not quite as inspiring.
Rumpus: There’s a beautiful romance between Alan and his Saudi doctor, Zahra. Could something like that happen in Saudi Arabia?
Eggers: A romance like that is eminently possible. The Saudi women I know are incredibly adept at navigating the byzantine rules governing their behavior and movements in their country. For a long time now, the more educated and wealthy women were already coming up with all kinds of ways to circumvent the rules and live semi-normal lives, and then cable and the internet really opened younger women up to what they were missing. So things are changing, even if slowly. And at Zahra’s level — she’s got a varied family ancestry, she’s a doctor and has traveled extensively — there are myriad ways of moving within and outside the system. Like anywhere, factors like wealth and education and status create opportunities and exceptions. But the younger women of Saudi Arabia I met, who were uniformly well-educated and ready to start their lives — they were exasperated by some of the limitations on their opportunities. They were all ready to bolt, go somewhere else.
Rumpus: And that comes up in your book. Someone says that Saudi Arabia is going to “pop.” Alan is surprised to hear that what they mean is that people think the women are going to revolt and demand more rights.
Eggers: Well, I don’t know if it’s just the women who want more. The young men, too, are frustrated. A place like the King Abdullah Economic City, though, is there to present the younger people with an oasis of opportunity, openness, education, employment, all that. But whether all that actually happens is a big question.
Rumpus: Do you show people your books while you’re writing them? This one touches on so many different topics, I wonder about their responses.
Eggers: I always want a book like this to seem at least plausible. In terms of Saudi Arabia, I wanted to be sure that there were no errors of culture or language, so I made sure my Saudi friends found the book to be plausible and truthful. I didn’t have to make any major changes after showing it to them, but they definitely corrected some terminology, a few matters of custom, some names.
Rumpus: The style of this book is very different from your other fiction. It’s stripped-down, meditative, carefully sculpted.
Eggers: When I got back from Saudi Arabia and started writing the book, it just seemed like the right form. I’m convinced that every story has its appropriate form, and that you really can’t fight it.
Rumpus: You try new things with your work. First memoir, then novel, then a novel based on journalism, then non-fiction. And I love that because it keeps it interesting, but it’s also got to be a little scary. Do you get nervous each time you publish a book?
Eggers: Definitely. It never really gets any easier. Going into this one, I thought it would be far easier than What Is the What or Zeitoun, which both required so much research. But Hologram took three or so years, just like the last two did. I guess a book needs the time it needs. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that. You have to wait for the fruit to fall from the tree.
Pre-order A Hologram For The King direct from McSweeney’s.