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Posted on Aug 27, 2012
Book cover from McSweeney's

By Chris Hedges

“A Hologram for the King”
A book by Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers’ gem of a book, “A Hologram for the King,” is a parable about the decadence, fragility and heartlessness of late, decayed corporate capitalism. It is about the small, largely colorless men and women who serve as managers in our suicidal outsourcing of manufacturing jobs and the methodical breaking of labor unions. It is about the lie of globalization, a lie that impoverishes us all to increase corporate profits. 

“A Hologram for the King” tells the story of Alan, a lackluster 54-year-old consultant who is desperately trying to snag one final big contract in Saudi Arabia for Reliant, a corporation that is “the largest I.T. supplier in the world,” to save himself from financial ruin. Alan has come to realize that managers like him who made outsourcing possible will be discarded as human refuse now that the process is complete, left to wander like ghosts—or holograms—among the ruins. And Eggers’ novel is a subtle, deft and poignant look at the horrendous toll this corporate process takes on self-esteem, on family, on health, on community and finally on the nation itself. It does so, like parables from Greek tragedy or George Orwell, by finding the perfect story to make a point that is universal. 

Eggers, who showcased his talent as a writer of nonfiction in “Zeitoun” about Hurricane Katrina, combines fiction and reporting to create a small masterpiece. The book works because of its authenticity, its close attention to detail and Eggers’ respect for fact. I spent many months as a correspondent in Saudi Arabia where the novel is set. Eggers captures in tight, bullet-like prose the utter decadence, hypocrisy and corruption of the kingdom, as well as its bleak landscape, suffocating heat and soulless glass and concrete office buildings. He is keenly aware that the outward religiosity and piety mask a moral and physical rot that fits seamlessly into the world of globalized capitalism.

book cover

 

A Hologram for the King

By Dave Eggers

 

McSweeney’s, 328 pages

 

Buy the book

Eggers conjures up the bizarre incongruities of Saudi Arabia from his image of a Saudi soldier in a beach chair cooling his bare feet in an inflatable pool next to a Humvee, to a wild embassy party where drunken expatriates in their underwear dive into the swimming pool for pills. At one point Alan mistakenly stumbles onto an unfinished floor of a luxury condo where 25 foreign laborers from Malaysia, Pakistan and the Philippines, crammed together as if on a slave ship, are fighting over a discarded cellphone. This scene captures the outward illusion of prosperity of global capitalism and the internal and brutal oppression of workers who make the illusion possible. 

“Alan opened the fire door and a roar of echoes flooded through. He was in a large raw space full of men, some in their underclothes, some in red jumpsuits, all yelling. It looked like pictures he’d seen of prison gyms converted to dormitories. There were fifty bunks, cloths hanging on lines between them. The beds were empty, though—all the men were gathered in the center of the room, barking, pushing. Alan had interrupted some kind of fight.”

Alan’s attempt to intervene backfires. The workers yell in his face. He is pushed. He turns and runs.

Alan’s professional life follows the trajectory of American manufacturing. He was an executive with Schwinn when the company broke the union, tried to set up a plant with nonunionized workers in Mississippi, which failed, and then shipped its production to China. Alan then moved his professional career “from Schwinn to Huffy to Frontier Manufacturing Partners to Alan Clay Consulting to sitting at home watching DVDs of the Red Sox winning the Series in ’04 and ’07.”

Alan, like Willy Loman, has the reservoir of stock salesman jokes, the upbeat optimism that studiously ignores reality, and his uniform: khakis and crisp white shirts. He dropped out of college to sell Fuller Brush products. He applies what he learns from an older, experienced Fuller Brush salesman named Trivole to life. Trivole says that there are four basic appeals to people: Money. Romance. Self-Preservation. Recognition. Alan sells bikes the same way he sold Fuller Brush products. “All the principles applied: the bikes were practical (Money); they were beautiful, glittering things (Romance); they were safe and durable (Self-Preservation); and they were status symbols for any family (Recognition).”

Alan marries a firebrand activist, Ruby, whose personal bitterness and cruelty, as well as passion for social justice, expose his timidity, blandness and intellectual limitations. But Alan, who lacks much of a conscience as well as a sense of direction, is redeemed in Eggers’ eyes by his love for his only daughter who, if the deal falls through, which it does, will not be able to go back to “a very good and expensive college.” It is Alan’s fragility, including his concerns about a cyst on his neck that he lances open with a serrated dinner knife, which remind us that he is human, that like most of us he is at once culpable and a victim. Alan has been rendered, in this new globalized world, impotent. He is no longer capable of sex. He has two disastrous encounters with women during his trip, moments of acute embarrassment and shame. At night he often sits alone in his hotel room on the 10th floor of the Hilton in Jeddah getting drunk on homemade grain alcohol and composing letters he will never send to his daughter Kit.


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