Does anyone else remember the 90s when A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius came out, and everyone was talking about how the first 100 pages, through the event of Eggers’s parents’ death, was the most un-put-downable thing anyone had ever read? (And then the rest of the book, not so much?) I’ve found Eggers’s recent non-fiction works, like Zeitoun and What is the What surprisingly gripping as well, and now this novel, for me, seals his status as a writer of ass-kicking, hilarious, stay-up-late thrillers for smart people. It’s an even more impressive feat since the material, about a down-on-his-luck consultant who goes to Saudi Arabia in a last-ditch attempt to pull off a big contract with the king, could potentially drag.
As much as I enjoyed this book, though, I’m bothered by its simplistic message. It seems to reach for more, and miss.
The tension in Hologram comes from the struggle of a middle-aged man, part of America’s previous manufacturing economy, whose livelihood has been destroyed by jobs moving to China. He worked for a loveable, all-American brand (Schwinn) which destroyed itself trying to union-bust and source cheaper labor, and now he flounders in a world where we don’t make anything any more. It’s so perfectly the dominant narrative about what went wrong with America, that it makes me suspicious, especially when the cliche faceless Chinese swoop in in vans (spoiler alert!) and steal the contract at the last minute. Is this a smart book about what’s gone wrong with our world—complete with amusingly half-constructed Saudi dream city in the desert, and echos about fathers who made things and sons who didn’t—or pandering to the obvious liberal fears?
Part of the problem, I think, is that truthfulness and close observation are being sacrificed for story-bang. (And that’s ok, for a thriller, but not for the cultural critique I suspect this book wants to be.)
A final crisis, for example, comes when the narrator sets out to ambush and shoot a wolf, and almost kills a boy who has wandered into the sheep pen instead. The mistake is rendered as a fatal flaw in the hero–he’s so single-mindedly determined to reverse his slide, to finally do something, prove he’s a man, etc., that he does the wrong thing. But the moment is contrived. A shepherd boy in a gun-culture is unlikely to walk into a shooting ring, and an accidental shot is more just something that happens hunting than a character indictment (remember Dick Cheney?). The moment is dramatically effective, but unreal, and thus becomes morally uninteresting.
Moreover, I would contend that the narrative of decline itself is part of the problem. It’s realistic enough that an American corporation might send a consultant and team of kids to Saudi, to wait for weeks to secure a contract that will ultimately go to the Chinese, as happens in the book, but the interesting, complicated evil is higher up the corporate ladder, with the executives who are making the decision to pursue new business in this sloppy, hopeless and doomed way. Alan’s tragedy isn’t that he doesn’t have a chance, it’s that he still thinks he has a chance, and we think he has a chance, and thus we fail to hold the right people accountable. Ultimately, the book feels like a thriller for liberals rather than a truly toothy social critique.
Oh, and ha ha. I just wrote all that before finding out that the book is being made into a movie starring Tom Hanks.