Alan Clay dropped out of college and learned how to sell Fuller brushes. He was good at it. He’d incorporated four concepts he learned from Joe Tivole, his selling partner, on how to analyze your customer. Now, looking back from King Abdullah’s Economic City in Saudi Arabia (KAEC), where Alan Clay’s team of young tech designers waits to make a presentation, we see an arc to his career beginning with selling utilitarian products door-to-door, face to face with customers and arriving now at an opportunity to present Reliant Corporation’s 3-D but intangible holographic teleconferencing product to the king of Saudi Arabia.
A high point in the middle of Clay’s career arc was his brilliant success in selling the all-American Schwinn bicycles during the boom years before Schwinn was sold to a multi-national corporation. Here is the exoskeleton of Eggers’ disturbing, keenly constructed story of the 21st century’s hazy disorienting globalism.
Alan Clay is a man with many pressures. His ex-wife is a crazy harridan; he desperately needs money to cover his daughter’s tuition and pay back loans he used to finance his failed attempt to manufacture a highly designed bicycle. He needs to sell his underwater house; a friend has committed suicide. He needs Reliant. Winning an IT contract with KAEC is merely a sales job. The same skills that sold the iconic American bicycle will sell King Abdullah Reliant’s IT. “‘I think it’s a slam dunk’, Alan had said.” “‘See, that’s what worries me’, Ingvall had said. ‘Your overconfidence does not reassure me.’” Eggers has Alan on a cusp; we either root for Clay or cringe.
Indeed, Clay’s mission in Arabia is a series of bewildering disconnections. (This is not as true outside of the king’s city.) He consistently misses the shuttle to KAEC noting once, when showing up three hours late, that he had nothing to teach the young design team at ease and accepting of their experience, who knew how to set up a hologram in a tent in the desert and be at ease, but waiting for King Abdullah is waiting for Godot. The vague explanations of king’s whereabouts and the profound politeness of the staff at KAEC only add to the existential absurdity. Within King Abdullah’s city, a place where national corporations are competing for an IT contract, Clay finds no familiar landmarks. His purpose, his place in the world is intangible. Time spent waiting is only that. In King Abdullah’s Economic City there is no slam dunk relationship.
And the title deserves praise. Seldom does the title of a book truly contribute to the story it tells. With the phrase “Hologram for the King” Eggers has assigned a title containing the hint of an unknown world where a relationship exists between emerging technologies and a leadership embedded in ancient history. Brilliantly apt, as is the book.