Swans Commentary » swans.com July 29, 2013  



Dave Eggers's Not-So-Ugly American


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Eggers, Dave: A Hologram for the King, 2012, Hamish Hamilton, ISBN: 978-0-241-14585-2, 312 pages. (A film is to be directed by Tom Tykwer.)


"Americans are born knowing everything and nothing. Born moving forward, quickly, or thinking they are." -- Page 126

"We don't have unions. We have Filipinos." -- Saudi saying, page 104


(Swans - July 29, 2013)   Remember The Ugly American? The novel came out in 1958 and the movie in 1963. (1) The hero had an ugly face, but unlike his more comely and militarized compatriots managed to understand something of Southeast Asia. He didn't talk about hearts and minds. He got into them. But history and the same compatriots wouldn't let him or the two-word expression be. The "ugly American" soon came to mean an ignorant, loudmouth up to no good in a country where he didn't belong. This second take on ugliness had a high principled and lethal double, the "quiet American." (2) He appeared in a novel and film of that name. The prissy do-gooder worked undercover for the CIA and lavished his naiveté on Vietnam with murderous results.

In his recent novel, A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers brings the slippery persona up to date. His book and its protagonist could have been called "The Washed-Out American." Alan Clay isn't a modest helper of the locals. Nor has he come armed to make trouble. He hasn't brought an abstract solution with him that will spread death. Alan Clay is at the end of the line. Far from helping, he needs help. He's not uncouth and overbearing but diffident to the point of self mutilation. As for wielding idealism as a bludgeon, he hasn't the strength to lift a tack hammer. This fifty-four-year-old American has been gutted. The irony is that he's still chasing the values that have eviscerated him. The pursuit also makes do as an escape. Ravaged in mind and body he finds himself in Saudi Arabia.

We can't help wondering how Alan got there and what has done him down. But a preliminary question is how Dave Eggers ended up writing a novel of the sort. The writer irrupted on the literary scene in 2000 with a partly fictional and relentlessly playful memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. (3) It tells how after the death of his parents, Dave at twenty-one took on the rearing of his eight-year-old brother. Eggers jogs through this anomalous situation with a freshness and inventiveness that delighted both readers and critics. Loss is held in check by youthful beginnings. It would take Eggers a decade to throw off the boys-together theme. He has never dropped his parental concern for his characters.

After a first book of immense success, writing the second is always a problem. Eggers had mined his tragic young life, which included the suicide of his sister. Now he had only his mercurial talent and his ineradicable sense of loss. In 2002 he put them into a first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity. (4) Crushed by the death of a friend, a boyish, not-so-young man of twenty-seven can only find relief by constant movement. A windfall of thirty-two thousand dollars lets him conceive the mad plan of giving the money away while circling the planet in a single week. Guilt, grieving, and lachrymose altruism will propel him. A close friend accompanies him in what will be an accelerated on-the-road performance. Only the brilliant asides into his hero's past and Eggers's fluid prose keep the novel from losing itself in adolescent hijinks. The sidekick says, "Junior high dances and that's like my favorite time on Earth. I've never reached that level of bliss again." Readers less enchanted by prom-night fun winced.

At this stage Eggers seems to have understood that he couldn't build a career on his own misfortune. Velocity made loss a given. Like a persistent ailment it shed its drama and sounded like whining. Eggers turned to editorial work and short stories for McSweeney's, the publishing house and literary journal he founded. (5) Tentative at first, the excursion beyond himself began. By 2006 he was ready to leave his own biography behind and publish What is the What, subtitled, The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. (6) Eggers called it a novel, "a fictionalized autobiography, in Valentino's voice." He gathered the material from long talks with the former "Lost Boy of Sudan" who had been separated from his family as a child and buffeted about between warring factions till he ended up in America as a refugee. Eggers added a twist to Valentino's African ordeal by giving us an outsider's view of life in America.

Eggers's identification with Valentino was impressive. In Zeitoun of 2009 he again relied on real life for a nonfiction novel but renders it more traditionally in third person, storyteller's narration. (7) He collaborated closely with a Syrian immigrant and his wife, established New Orleans residents. The husband stayed on to aid distressed neighbors during the flood that followed Hurricane Katrina. But the National Guard and local police were more concerned with terrorism than flood relief and arrested the Good Samaritan because he was a Muslim. A period followed when he was thrown in prison and deprived of all his rights.

Eggers is astute in the way he finesses the problem of "abroad." In Heartbreaking Work there's understandably no breathing space beyond the Midwestern and Californian terrain of the facts. But a young author of the third millennium with Eggers's curiosity would feel remiss at keeping the rest of the world out of his work. In Velocity the travelers' globe circling -- one week! -- is so preposterous that Eggers can easily laugh off the characters' ignorance. Yet he's careful to suggest that there's much that's important out there that will have to be given attention. In How We Are Hungry, the short stories can't leave "abroad" alone. Eggers is uneasy. Egypt, Costa Rica, Tanzania -- these people are human too, even though not American. The first two stories of the collection can't kick free of paranoia and pose the familiar question -- fearing an answer -- of "Why do they hate us?"

The Autobiography of Valentino plunges honestly into southern Sudan by means of a prime witness and strengthens the "abroad" dimension by invoking Valentino's account of his life in America. Because Zeitoun is about a Syrian immigrant, Eggers -- frivolous globe trotting behind him -- went to Syria to live with the Syrians for a while. With Hologram he set his novel entirely abroad. His American protagonist is a cosmopolitan of the global economy persuasion whose doings will give us an account of life in Saudi Arabia.

Which brings us back to the spent Alan Clay who "woke up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It was May 30, 2010." Eggers will describe Alan's twitching at the end of his tether for three hundred pages. Alan's musings, asides, and hallucinations will fill in his past for us without ever making clear to him why he's been brought low. That's because he doesn't himself know why. At the novel's end he's still desperate to make a killing in global business as if his belief in the entrepreneurial life remains unshaken. Yet the reader knows it has been shaken and so beneath his denial must Alan himself. What else does his yearning demonstrate?

Eggers's disquiet about the "other," the foreigner in his foreign land, has reached a turning point here. Our most dramatic glimpse of it came in the fine story, Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly. Five Americans climb Kilimanjaro with the help of many porters. When two porters die because of "working conditions," three climbers continue unconcerned while two give up out of respect for the dead. Two, that is to say, recognize that the "other" is us. The stories of Valentino and Zeitoun looked closer at this "other" in our midst. Alan Clay in Hologram is made to take the giant step. He becomes the "other" in Saudi Arabia. He's the high end of US economic decline that has left twenty-three million households lower down dependent on food stamps.

As a character, Alan is double. On the intimate side he exited from a divorce angry and lively at first and then listless and solitary. His wife was an unsentimental idealist, reckless and untamable. His daughter, now in college and alienated from her mother, is the remaining love of Alan's life. He takes his role as protector seriously, excessively so. Paying the girl's tuition at an expensive university has become a kind of proof for him that he hasn't failed. The travail of fatherhood, divorce, and failed business deals has nullified his libido. He meets women but sees them only as maternal helpmates.

The second side of Alan, the professional one, comes across in his differences with his father. The old man is tough, a WWII veteran. He was a union man and worked all his life as a foreman making shoes in Boston. He retired with full pension before his Roxbury company fled the unions in 1992 and set up in Kentucky. Five years later they moved all production to Thailand and China. Clay senior can't forgive Alan for being part of the generation that brought all this about. Deep down Alan concurs that his father is the better man.

Caught in the tide, Alan is beyond questioning the rightness or wrongness of the economy. He's flailing about, trying to keep afloat. Penniless now, he can only dream of a big killing that will get him out from under his crushing debts. He began his career wanting to keep manufacturing going in America and was instrumental in reorganizing Schwinn bicycle factories. He kept one going in Chicago till 1983. But inevitably he had to flee the unions too, first to the American south and then to Eastern Europe, a fiasco that left the company bankrupt.

Eggers sums up Alan as "born into manufacturing and somewhere later got lost in worlds tangential to the making of things." Lost he remains while in a corner of his mind he still fantasizes about opening a bicycle factory in New England. When he asks for credit, bankers laugh and remind him that ninety-nine percent of the new bicycles in the world are not only built in China but in a single province of that country. All the same, a high point of his life came when he showed his daughter the prototype that he'd commissioned in stunning silver and chrome.

The corporation that Alan now works for has not yet understood that he is no longer, as his Schwinn employers concluded, "A man who can get things done." They have sent him in charge of a young team to sell King Abdullah a holographic teleconference system for the new economic city he would like to build on the coast. The place has not got far beyond the dream dimension. But Alan buys the dream. It's his last chance to make a big sale, settle his debts, and launch into business on his own once more. He's an American and knows all about starting again from scratch. One cynical Saudi reminds him ominously, "This isn't Dubai." Procrastination and whimsy prove to be the modalities of Saudi business. Alan can do nothing but hang around waiting for the King to choose him among the competitors.

Meantime Alan can hardly keep up a front for his young associates. It strains him to play the dynamic executive, "A triumphant man with a powerful appetite and unlimited options." He falls into sloth and ends up drinking bootleg alcohol on his own in his Hilton suite. He watches Boston Red Sox games on DVDs. He begins letters full of fatherly advice to his daughter. These are never mailed or even finished. As a Danish woman he meets tells him, he's "defeated."

With nothing else to do, Alan pursues a friendship with a young Saudi who has studied in Alabama. They have enough in common to make conversation possible. But this one-to-one relationship with a foreigner in a foreign country where the American finds himself a supplicant will ultimately unhinge Alan. Misunderstandings abound. Yousef has a problem with a former girlfriend now married. She has started a friendly e-mail exchange with him that her husband has discovered. The man wants to have Yousef killed. Alan gives him the advice he would have offered in Boston: Sit down and talk it over with the man. "Look him in the eye and tell him you've never done anything with his wife." Yousef, who is terrorized, listens bemused. He knows Saudis and prefers to check under his car every morning for dynamite.

Alan's graver cultural shock comes when he visits Yousef's family house in their ancestral village. In a playful conversation Yousef asks Alan whether he would back him if war broke out in Saudi Arabia. Alan says yes. And would he join in an invasion? The business man is cowboyish and answers yes again. But Yousef, thinking of the last two decades, says Alan is crazy and that he, Yousef, was only joking. Humor again comes between them when Alan is out walking on his own taking photographs. A villager approaches and learns that he's an American. Then he asks Alan if he works for the CIA. Alan jokingly tells him that he's only a part-time spy. The villager doesn't laugh. This man will turn up when a wolf hunt is organized. Alan, whose father taught him to shoot as a ten-year-old, wants to go along. Waiting for the wolf to appear he's possessed by the desire to be its killer. It will be an accomplishment. He thinks he sees the wolf's head and fires. It was only a shepherd boy chasing a stray sheep and Alan was lucky to miss his target. But the men in the party are not surprised. An American abroad with a gun is an enemy of the people. After a long night, Alan will be bundled off back to Jeddah at dawn:

Alan did not sleep. He tried to calm his thoughts, but everything came back to what he'd almost done. Because he hadn't done anything, for years or ever, he had almost done this. Because he had no stories of valor, he had almost done this. Because the efforts he'd made toward creating something like a legacy had failed, he had almost done this.

The King finally honors his new city site with a royal visit. Alan and his team present their product, but so do a dozen other corporations. The King prefers one of the others. When Alan tries to find out which, his Saudi contact isn't sure. He thinks it was probably the Chinese. Alan doesn't want to go home. He begs the Saudis to give him something to do in the business line. They promise, with a note of pity, to think about it.


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About the Author

Peter Byrne on Swans -- with bio.   (back)


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1.  Burdick, Eugene and Lederer, William: The Ugly American, 1958. Film 1963 directed by George Englund.  (back)

2.  Greene, Graham: The Quiet American, 1955. Films 1958 directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and 2002 by Phillip Noyce.  (back)

3.  Eggers, Dave: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, 2000.  (back)

4.  Eggers, Dave: You Shall Know Our Velocity, 2002.  (back)

5.  Eggers, Dave: How We Are Hungry, Stories, 2005.  (back)

6.  Eggers, Dave: What is the What, The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, 2006. Director Tom Tykwer plans to adapt the novel into a film.  (back)

7.  Eggers, Dave: Zeitoun, 2009. A animated film is being made by Jonathan Demme.  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published July 29, 2013