Perhaps what's most remarkable about Dave Eggers' big-spiritedness is that the same humane, world-minded impulses that animate his work with 826 Valencia et al. also have become the hallmark of his fiction and reportage. Who could have guessed that, after a couple wunderkind years — perfecting arch front-of-the-book magazine pieces at Might; gaining international renown with a memoir that inspired serious chatter of defining generations — this most voice-driven of writers would chuck the style and self-involvement that made his fame and transform himself into an ace chronicler of suffering around the world? Or that his mild crack-up of a first novel — the one where a couple Americans attempt to use windfall money they've lucked into to better the lives of strangers — would come to seem like an allegory for what Eggers himself does with his talent, his resources, his hard-earned but still-literal gifts? Or that the books themselves would get stronger?
That last one is a fresh surprise, since the opening of A Hologram for the King, his new novel, is almost stubbornly unpromising, a familiar existential fable, like The Castle for the IT age. A down-on-his-luck salesman named Alan finds himself in charge of a major tech company's presentation to the king of Saudi Arabia. If the king is impressed, all involved hope, Alan's company will win the contract to wire a marvelous new city that promises to be the Kingdom's Dubai. But the team is stuck in a tent in the desert without the wireless connection they need to project their show-stopping hologram technology, and anyway they're waiting day after day for a king who seems in no hurry to arrive. The king's failure to appear is presented the first several times as a surprise, but it's a rare reader who won't have seen that coming — or who will not feel safe in guessing where this all is going.
But Eggers is too humane for easy existential dread. As the kingless days pass, Alan ventures from the tent and hotel into the rich, unsettling realities of the Kingdom, and Eggers ventures deeper into Alan, as well as into the question that has seemingly guided Eggers' work for years: What does it mean to be an American in a world that has places like the Sudan, Saudi Arabia, or post-Katrina New Orleans?
For much of the book, Eggers eschews narrative momentum in favor of the steady accretion of telling details. He employs a blackout structure, doling out a paragraph or two about some aspect of Alan's life before moving onto another and then the next: the cyst growing on his neck; the letters he writes to his daughter; his early years as a salesman; globalization; his complicity in the Schwinn bicycle company going bust; his confusion around women, whether nude or in burqas. One memory of Alan's that resonates more than others concerns improvising a garden wall out of fresh cement and a pile of stones. Alan heeds no clear plan as he fixes each rock he grabs upon the previous, but — like Eggers — he crafts something strong and satisfying all the same.