I WAS AMONG the multitude who fell like a brick for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Here was a young writer who had read David Foster Wallace and gotten it. Eggers was no mere imitator--sweeter, more carbonated--but like Wallace was willing to go to gloriously baroque excess with the American vernacular and was brave enough to declare, like the usher at the end of Delmore Schwartz's "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," that what one does matters.
The next book, a novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, featured two young men trying to give away a windfall of money to which they did not feel morally entitled. Oof. I finished it, but just barely. Perhaps Eggers felt guilty, I surmised, about becoming famous and prosperous with a book about his family's pain, and this book purged that guilt...all might yet be well.
But the next one--What Is the What--I couldn't finish. Undaunted, or not yet sufficiently daunted, I picked up the non-fiction Zeitoun when it came out, hit this on p. 61--"Kathy shuddered at the thought"--and stopped. Shuddered at the thought? The subject matter of Zeitoun seemed worthy and earnest, but life is too short to read books in which people shudder at thoughts.
I was about to write off Eggers. Then, from a few yards away, I saw a book in my local Barnes & Noble that appeared to be bound in tree bark. What the hell is that? Well, it was A Hologram for the King, of course. Say what you will, the guy knows how to pick a cover. Twenty-five dollars later, I was about to give Eggers another chance.
And you know what? It's good. Good enough to take a chance on the next one, at least. The language seems awake again: "The glass container that held them all fell down through the atrium to the lobby, silent as snow, and the doors opened to a wall of fake rock. The smell of chlorine." The main character, Alan Clay, is in an interesting pickle: a former executive whose company ran aground, now a "consultant" with a diminishing list of clients, at fifty-four too old a dog to learn many new tricks, facing a pile of debts and his likely inability to pay for his daughter's next semester at a prestigious college, he has a chance to solve all his problems if he can just make one big sale to a Saudi monarch.
A Hologram for the King has lots of great nubbly historically- and culturally-specific detail (the creation of King Abdullah Economic City, the decline and fall of the Schwinn bicycle company), but at bottom we have (I am not the first to notice) a reworking of Kafka's The Castle.
Like the land-surveyor K., Alan is summoned to undertake a mission in an unfamiliar place, yet when he arrives, no one seems ready for him, he can't get the information he needs to complete his mission, and the people he most needs to talk to are invariably unavailable--except when, by the wildest chance, he bumps into them, but these lucky encounters somehow fail to result in progress. He meets people, befriends some, some merely attach themselves to him, and he is gradually enmeshed in the life of the place without being truly a part of it.
At the end, we don't really know whether Alan has gotten somewhere or not, but the ending feels oddly, eccentrically upbeat. I can't for the life of me say why--nothing seems to be going Alan's way, really. He is still in a terrible spot. But he has met a wonderful woman (and had an episode of impotence--but surely one can get Viagra in Saudi Arabia) and seems to think he may still be able to make things work out.
One can't really be Kafkaesque (a word I should have known I would be unable to avoid, despite my best intentions) and vaguely upbeat, I suppose, but somehow the ending seems well-judged. A Hologram for the King does not dislodge Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled from the top of my Contemporary Kafkaesque list, but it's a secure # 2.