This is not a new novel. The paperback edition I read came loaded with rave reviews from major newspapers. It was a finalist for the National Book Award. It was one of The New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of the Year. Interestingly, the Amazon reviews are about as evenly split between 5-, 4-, 3-, 2-, and 1-star as I've ever seen. (The totals at this writing in that order are: 68, 50, 47, 51, 37.)
The story follows Alan Clay, a 54-year-old American executive of a global information technology corporation, who has come to Saudi Arabia with a team of three much younger executives to demonstrate a holographic teleconference system to King Abdullah. They hope to obtain a contract for the entire IT system of King Abdullah Economic City, a brand new metropolis rising in the desert beside the Red Sea an hour or so from Jeddah, where the team is staying in a luxurious Hilton.
Eggers has done something exceptionally difficult, I think. He has created a depressed, hollow, and foolish protagonist without writing a depressing, hollow, and foolish book.
Many of Alan's troubles are self-induced. By page 4, he has recognized that many of his decisions have been short-sighted, expedient, foolish, or all three. "He and his peers did not know they were making decisions that would leave them, leave Alan, as he now was—virtually broke, nearly unemployed, the proprietor of a one-man consulting firm run out of his home office." Alan (and Eggers) blames a lot of his problems on globalization and the loss of American manufacturing to the Chinese and other foreign companies. Alan had been a senior executive in Schwinn, the Chicago-based bicycle manufacturer, and was instrumental in its eventual move to China.
Alan's marriage was a disaster. He essentially watched a friend commit suicide by wading into a freezing lake without lifting a finger or calling for help. He loves his college-age daughter, but he cannot communicate with her honestly and openly. He has a disturbing growth on the back of his neck that. while drunk, he explores with a knife. In the mountains of Saudi Arabia, he jokes with a suspicious local that he's with the CIA. (In the rural mid-East! It's like joking you have a bomb with an airport security screener.) Alan is so depressed (I guess) he is unable to respond sexually to two different women who offer themselves to him. He is monumentally bored while waiting for the king, but does not read, is not interested in learning anything about Saudi Arabia, and seems to have almost no internal resources whatever.
Nevertheless, A Hologram for the King held my interest all the way through. I absolutely believed that these characters—and thankfully Alan is surrounded by a number of people who are not depressed, not hollow—would act in these situations in this way. Eggers has a number of interesting things to say about globalization, about Saudi society, and, therefore, about American society and the number of short-sighted, expedient, or foolish decisions we have made about what we value, where we place resources, and where Eggers thinks we're going.