A Hologram for the King: Outsourcing dreams and the yawning of the 21st century


[video link] An unsustainable petrol-utopia. Peak oil anyone?

If Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” was the 19th century’s zeitgeist moment, what would it look like in the 21st century? Rather than a wretched soul who knows his life has been fracked, it would look more like Bill Murray’s Prozac gaze at the end of Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers. Or any lead character in a Sofia Coppola film. Which is to say, pop culture’s 21st century scream is more or less a yawn.

Along these lines, in A Hologram for the King we have Dave Egger‘s deflated corporate man. The novel zooms in on globalization’s spiritual vagabonds, focusing on a troubled fifty-something Reliant salesman, Alan Clay, whose path to redemption is pitching a holographic communications system to the Saudi King. Like an updated version of Waiting for Godot, while anticipating the King’s audience Clay and his team are stuck in the liminal zone of the yet-to-be-developed King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC, the Middle East’s future Plastic Valley, see above video). The King and his associates have little interest in keeping appointments with the Reliant team, so Clay and his Gen Y staff spend their days in the speculative economy’s version of a bardo state, camped out in the middle of the unbuilt city’s grid in an inhospitable desert where the map has no territory.

To kill boredom, Clay journeys through the surreal landscape of Saudi Arabia that is simultaneously tribal and caught-up in a hightech realm where a loss of wi-fi can bring on a catastrophic crisis in consciousness (“This is the peculiar problem of constant connectivity: any silence of more than a few hours provokes apocalyptic thoughts”). Throughout the novel Clay teeters on personal disaster, a walking emotional implosion that is more likely to disintegrate than blow-up. Drifting in the Kafkaesque KAEC, Clay’s current role of hawking holograms is contrasted by reminiscences of his glory days as a Schwin bicycle salesman. In the world of global trade, holograms–illusions–trump hand-made American bicycles–freedom. The old ways are made extinct by overseas manufacturing and the information economy.

China is an implicated villain in the story, but Clay is not innocent. He was complicit in the demise of his beloved Schwin by his own participation in offshoring American jobs. Ultimately, Clay’s whole crisis is about outsourcing life to economic abastractions. The hologram becomes yet another entry point into the disembodied world economy.

The book’s uber-consciousness speaks through a skyscraper architect who decries the lack of American ambition and imagination in favor of globalization’s pop-up cities: “in the U.S. now there’s not that kind of dreaming happening. It’s on hold. The dreaming’s being done elsewhere for now.” Though Clay’s existential crisis is brought on by the sugar rush of the petrol economy, his story can also be read as an update of earlier 20th century French writers who were grappling with the bureaucratization of humanity. As if lifted from the pages of Camus’ The Stranger, Eggers’ Clay “wanted the simplicity of being who he was: no one.”

If anything, this wonderful book offers a humanistic counterpoint to a world in which the technological singularity would reign supreme. In such a world, like space, no one can hear you scream. Instead, what drives the book is the tension Clay feels between the yawn of the 21st century and his caterpillar-like state awaiting transformation. You’ll have to read it to see if he becomes a butterfly.