#1: A Hologram for the King // Dave Eggers

#1: A Hologram for the King // Dave Eggers

Fiction | Paperback | 312 pages

I picked up this novel during a book binge at Eslite in December, one of half a dozen paperbacks grabbed from the promotional tables near the registers. For whatever reason, I tend to be less picky when choosing from bookstores, and never leave with fewer than five books in tow. It may be that I'm a sucker for nice displays, or perhaps it’s due to the lack of reviews that might drive me off. Point being, I bought this particular book without much thought.

After quickly reading another of my book binge finds, Orphan Train (recommended!), I thought I’d be able to finish another story by the end of 2016, but alas, it is now a new year and A Hologram for the King has become my first book of 2017. Here’s my review.

The bad news

Unfortunately, though I’d like to be able to say my 2017 reading is off to a good start, I found Eggers’s rambling narrative immensely sad. In this version of the cliched fish out of water tale, Alan Clay is a middle-aged white guy dispatched to a foreign land for a work assignment. Sound familiar? 

Throughout the story, I found myself thinking I might have liked it more if I’d never seen Lost in Translation. Just as with Bill Murray in Coppola’s take on Tokyo, the world Clay encounters in Saudi Arabia is populated by unusual characters who contribute a touch of levity. And yet, you just know from the start that not one of the people in the story is going to be happy by the end. Changed, yes. Happy, no. 

Perhaps if I’d listened to the Lost in Translation soundtrack while reading, I may have enjoyed this novel. Perhaps not.

The good news

Over the years, I’ve learned that no book is a waste of time, even if you don’t particularly like the content. There is always something to be learned. Here are a few things I learned from/after reading A Hologram for the King:

1. A movie version was released in April 2016

Naturally, it was after reaching the final page that I noticed the sticker on the bcover, proclaiming NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE. A quick Google told me that the screen version of Alan Clay was portrayed by Tom Hanks (with his dad played by a now 83-year-old Tom Skerritt!), and that the film only took in US $7.8 million on a $30 million budget. Even the best actor who’s ever lived, Tom Hanks, couldn’t save this depressing story, and according to Wikipedia it was his worst flop in 30 years. See for yourself:

2. The book’s setting is real…ish

It was also after finishing the book that I learned that King Abdullah Economic City, Clay’s destination in the story, does in fact exist. And like the fictionalized version in Eggers’s novel, the real KAEC has a certain aura of the surreal about it. If you check out the official website and view its associated Facebook page, YouTube channel, and other social media accounts, you’ll notice the content is primarily drawn from the same source video, recycled and reconfigured over the past two years into new content. While you can find plenty of English language reporting over the past couple of years about the economic troubles of Saudi Arabia, there is very little recent reporting about KAEC itself that is not from an official press release. 

Probably the best way to learn more about KAEC is to go there — if you’re looking for a new adventure in 2017 and moving to Saudi Arabia seems like a good personal choice, may I direct you to the recruiting page? Even women are welcome to apply.

3. There’s much to be learned about Middle Eastern fashion

Since A Hologram for the King includes numerous descriptions of what people are wearing, and given that I've never traveled to Saudi Arabia or anywhere else in the region, I had to do more Googles to be able to picture some of the characters in the novel. Down the rabbit holes of Wikipedia and YouTube and back out again, now I know a thing or two about thobes and how there’s no one correct way to wear a ghutra, but more importantly, I’ve got a better picture of the scale of what I do not know. But hey, knowing what you don't know is the first step in learning, right? If you’d like to learn a thing or two, here’s a good place to start:

Note: This video is from Qatar rather than Saudi Arabia, though the basics are similar.


And that’s all for book #1 of 2017 and the year's first book review. For some background, after 2 years in a row of successfully reading at least 52 books in 52 weeks, I decided a couple months back that my writing could also use some work. Writing reviews of what I'm reading is my way of upping the ante in 2017.

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