Corporate Accountability and WorkPlace  
comments_image Comments

Dave Eggers' Gem of a New Novel Goes Right After the Decadence and Heartlessness of Corporate Capitalism

"A Hologram for the King" explores the horrendous toll that ruthless capitalism takes on self-esteem, on family, on health, on community and finally on the nation itself.

Continued from previous page

 
 
Share

Alan, like Willy Loman, has the reservoir of stock salesman jokes, the upbeat optimism that studiously ignores reality, and his uniform: khakis and crisp white shirts. He dropped out of college to sell Fuller Brush products. He applies what he learns from an older, experienced Fuller Brush salesman named Trivole to life. Trivole says that there are four basic appeals to people: Money. Romance. Self-Preservation. Recognition. Alan sells bikes the same way he sold Fuller Brush products. “All the principles applied: the bikes were practical (Money); they were beautiful, glittering things (Romance); they were safe and durable (Self-Preservation); and they were status symbols for any family (Recognition).”

Alan marries a firebrand activist, Ruby, whose personal bitterness and cruelty, as well as passion for social justice, expose his timidity, blandness and intellectual limitations. But Alan, who lacks much of a conscience as well as a sense of direction, is redeemed in Eggers’ eyes by his love for his only daughter who, if the deal falls through, which it does, will not be able to go back to “a very good and expensive college.” It is Alan’s fragility, including his concerns about a cyst on his neck that he lances open with a serrated dinner knife, which remind us that he is human, that like most of us he is at once culpable and a victim. Alan has been rendered, in this new globalized world, impotent. He is no longer capable of sex. He has two disastrous encounters with women during his trip, moments of acute embarrassment and shame. At night he often sits alone in his hotel room on the 10th floor of the Hilton in Jeddah getting drunk on homemade grain alcohol and composing letters he will never send to his daughter Kit.

Alan, Eggers writes, did well in the old America, the one that made things and sold them, the one that paid its workers fair wages with pensions and benefits, the one that made possible a middle class. But that America is gone, destroyed when “he and others decided to have other people, ten thousand miles away, build the things they sold.” And Alan must confront in the novel the fact that he was deeply complicit in his own demise, that he “helped scout a new, non-union location for Schwinn, had met with suppliers in China and Taiwan, had contributed not insignificantly … to all that undid Schwinn and the 1,200 workers employed there.” 

His “decisions were shortsighted, foolish or expedient,” he admits. “He and his peers did not know they were making decisions that would leave them, like Alan, as he now was—virtually broke, nearly unemployed, the proprietor of a one-man consulting firm run out of his home office.”

 

Alan’s father Ron is a World War II vet who still has shrapnel in his body and lives on a farm in New Hampshire. Ron, whose crude vitality and generous union pension intimidate his son, barks at Alan over the phone:

“Every day, Alan, all over Asia, hundreds of container ships are leaving their ports, full of every kind of consumer good. Talk about three-dimensional, Alan. These are actual things. They’re making things over there, and we’re making websites and holograms, while sitting in chairs made in China, working on computers made in China, driving over bridges made in China. Does this sound sustainable to you, Alan?”

The hologram becomes the perfect metaphor for the insubstantial nature of the American economy. None of it is real. It is a mirage. It is held up by credit, by debt, by the printing of endless amounts of new money and by vast schemes of financial speculation and casino capitalism that evaporate as swiftly as a hologram. The development project Alan and his team are bidding on is itself a mirage. He and his team of three snotty young careerists, who look at Alan with scorn and pity, have cooked up a holographic teleconferencing system where a sales representative in London will appear before the Saudi king as a hologram in a tent in the barren wastelands of a planned city with only three buildings, including a two-story welcome center known as King Abdulla Economic City. The holographic sales representative will walk on the stage and speak in Arabic and English and then disappear for the king. And they are sure that this bit of magic will save them.

 
See more stories tagged with: