Is America in decline? A Google search for this phrase yields 153,000,000 results, so it’s safe to say that the idea has at least crossed some people’s minds. It’s one of the big questions author Dave Eggers examines in his latest novel, A Hologram for the King.
Eggers’ protagonist is Alan Clay, a divorced middle-aged businessman who’s seen better days. He used to work for Schwinn, travelling the world on bicycle-related business, but became an unwitting participant in the offshoring of Schwinn’s bicycle manufacturing to China and the loss of his own job. Now he’s landed a position as a consultant on a project to sell holographic videoconferencing technology to the King of Saudi Arabia. The novel’s “action” (as it were) takes place while Alan and his team await the arrival of the King for their presentation in a half-finished, mostly empty planned mega-community and business park, King Abdullah Economic City.
The novel’s epigraph, “We are not always needed”, is taken from Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, and whether Alan (and by extension the United States) is needed anymore is Eggers’ central question. Alan (and I suspect Eggers) spends a lot of time ruminating on the loss of American identity through the decline of our manufacturing sector. We used to make things like bicycles, microwaves, and cars, but what do we make now? The role of post-industrial America in the global economy is much more difficult to define and has led to a crisis of confidence that Alan tries to confront throughout the novel.
I enjoy Dave Eggers’ work, as he’s one of the few authors working in fiction who deals with these issues. The writing is sparse – no postmodern flourishes here – and the topic is serious. I had previously only read Eggers’ creative non-fiction (I really like Zeitoun, which we have in print and as an eBook) so it was interesting to see how he presents his ideas in a fictional format.