Near Death of a Salesman

Late in Dave Eggers‘ moving new novel A Hologram for the King, his protagonist Alan Clay, a onetime corporate sales manager for Schwinn who is now tenuously self-employed as a consultant, is lying on his belly in a Saudi Arabian operating room, trying to think of something other than the tumor inside him. “I sold capitalism to the communists,” he thinks. Or, to be more precise, remembers thinking.

Alan is reminiscing about a trip he took with his daughter Kit the previous year to witness one of the last Space Shuttle launches. While waiting with the other “pilgrims” for a propitious day for lift-off, he had met a former astronaut Mike Massimino. Having learned how bad off NASA is doing in the twenty-first century, with many of its employees facing layoffs, Alan was overcome by the urge to help with the agency’s plight.

“When the Shuttle disappeared through the canopy of white clouds, Alan cried, and Kit smiled seeing him cry, and afterwards he looked frantically for Massimino, to offer him anything he needed.” That’s when he imagined making his curious confession. “I sold bikes, he would say. I sold capitalism to communists. Let me sell the Shuttle. I will help you get to Mars. Give me something to do.” But in the hectic aftermath of the launch, the former astronaut was nowhere to be found.

Alan’s plea was destined to remain part of the internal monologue that shapes the novel. Desperate to make the deal that will solve his massive financial problems, he spends most of his free time wondering to what extent he is to blame for them. But the longer we share his thoughts, the more clear it becomes that this task is inextricably bound up with economic changes that have made determining individual responsibility a fool’s errand.

Yet how our protagonist experiences these changes as an individual still matters. In a work otherwise noteworthy for its minimalism, Eggers repeatedly reminds us that success in business can feel like a moral failure. When Alan was climbing the corporate ladder at Schwinn, he played a major role, first in moving production from the company’s unionized plant near Chicago to one in the right-to-work state of Mississippi, then to factories overseas. Even though he was doing what his supervisors asked of him at the time, his complicity in the loss of good American jobs has come back to haunt him.

“Now he was fifty-four years old and was as intriguing to corporate America as an airplane built from mud. He could not find work, could not sign clients.” That’s why he finds himself in Saudi Arabia, as the story commences, trying to broker a deal for a technology company to wire the King Abdullah Economic City or KAEC, not because he has any particular expertise in the matter, but because he once knew one of the leader’s relatives. It looks like the end of the line. “He had moved from Schwinn to Huffy to Frontier Manufacturing Partners to Alan Clay Consulting to sitting at home watching DVDs of the Red Sox winning the Series in ‘O4 and ’07.”

As this passage suggests, Alan’s reflections often drift in a self-pitying direction. He would be easy to mock. After all, whatever his current troubles, he has enjoyed the sort of privileges that most of the world’s residents can only dream about. His own father, a retired shoe factory worker and staunch defender of unions, mocks him. It is noteworthy, then, that Eggers works so hard to keep readers on his protagonist’s side. Even when we can’t help but laugh at Alan’s situation — even when Alan is laughing at himself — A Hologram for the King finds a way for us to take it seriously as well.

In emphasizing this duality, the novel shows an obvious debt to the work of Don DeLillo, who has probably done a better job than anyone of teasing out the many contradictions of white maleness in American culture. Although the circumstances of Alan’s mid-life crisis differ markedly from those of Hitler Studies professor Jack Gladney in White Noise or waste management executive Nick Shay in Underworld, the insights the three characters arrive at have much in common.

The DeLillo novel closest to A Hologram For the King from a thematic standpoint is The Names, his sorely underappreciated tale of American businessmen and women abroad. Written in the shadow of a decade’s struggles between OPEC and the world’s leading industrial powers, as well as the Iranian hostage crisis, the story underscores the new “white man’s burden” — having to do the dirty work of global capitalism in the interest of Progress — while also acknowledging the risks that come with taking it on.

“We knew where martial law was in force, where body searches were made, where they engaged in systematic torture, or fired assault rifles into the air at weddings, or abducted and ransomed executives. This was the humor of personal humiliation.” Like most of DeLillo’s best passages, this one is strangely disembodied, less the work of our narrator than a process that subsumes him. Yet it culminates in a reminder that he believes his characters smart enough to think and even talk this way. “‘It is like the Empire,’ said Charles Maitland more than once. ‘Opportunity, adventure, sunsets, dusty death.’”

Thirty years later, Alan Clay does his best to mobilize this fantasy, both to bolster his faltering confidence and to beat back the boredom of waiting, day after day after day, for the king to arrive at his namesake city. He attends a wild party at the Danish consulate; pilots a yacht that suddenly materializes in the possession of a KAEC administrator; befriends his driver and subsequently accompanies him to a remote desert hideout; and pursues, most improbably, a romance with the Muslim woman who performs his surgery, in a country where such behavior is punishable by death. But all of this frenzied activity only serves to distract him for a little while. Soon enough, he resumes his bleak ruminations on what it means to be an American and, more specifically, a white, male, middle-aged American in the wake of the global economic collapse of 2008.

“The age of machines holding dominion over man had come. This was the downfall of a nation and the triumph of systems designed to thwart human contact, human reason, personal discretion and decision making.” Notice how this passage, the most DeLillo-like in A Hologram for the King, indicates that there is a direct correlation between technological progress, globalization and the decline of the United States. American exceptionalism gives way to a refusal to make exceptions. “Most people did not want to make decisions. And too many of the people who could make decisions had decided to cede them to machines.”

Why should we feel sorry for a man like Alan? This is the unspoken question at the heart of A Hologram for the King. Like the deeply flawed character of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller‘s Death of a Salesman, Alan isn’t the easiest person to identify with. Even if we see ourselves in him, we have good reason not to admit this, whether to others or ourselves. His sexual difficulties are the index of an impotence that goes far beyond the bedroom. In the end, he simply doesn’t accomplish much of anything, wasting valuable time recalling the days when he believed he could.

If Eggers shows compassion for his protagonist’s nostalgic urges, he does so out of self-interest, for the novel itself is clearly fueled by a longing for the way things used to be, not only in a socio-economic sense, but aesthetically as well. He has reined in the postmodern self-reflexivity for which he and his literary journal McSweeney’s became famous to a startling extent here. Instead of the self-aggrandizing authorial presence of his landmark debut A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, we get one who is content to live exclusively through his characters.

A Hologram for the King often reads like the work of one of those retirement-age creative writing instructors who were taught to worship Hemingway in their youth and then found a way to turn his idiosyncrasies into a de facto rulebook: do pare your sentences down as much as you possibly can; don’t ever introduce an authorial point of view distinct from your characters; do show; don’t tell.

When you consider that writers like Norman Mailer, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon and William Gass were already pushing back hard against these constraints by the late 1960s, it is tempting to regard A Hologram for the King as a conservative gesture, the work of someone who not only belongs to what passes for the literary establishment of today, but also seeks retroactive membership in the more robust, self-confident one of the immediate postwar era, when the white men who ran the show could smoke, drink and be surly without worrying about political correctness and the Kindle.

Personally, I think that Eggers is too savvy to have succumbed to such a retrograde desire. But the fact that A Hologram for the King is the story of a white, American male in crisis, written in a stereotypically white, American male style that is also in crisis does open him up to this line of attack. To my mind, though, this is a risk that he acknowledges and then assumes regardless. He invests in this endangered worldview — and does his best to make his readers invest along with him — because he worries about the repercussions if it dies while white men are still walking the Earth.

The fear is that the doubt and anxiety that now define this worldview would be transmuted into something far more toxic if its social energies were to return as the repressed. When salesmen no longer have anything to sell, their skills can be redirected to disturbingly sociopathic ends, as a few hours of listening to American talk radio makes abundantly clear. What we need instead, A Hologram for the King communicates, is to give them opportunities to deploy those skills more positively. And perhaps, I dare say it, to turn Alan’s confession inside out. Because if it’s possible to sell capitalism to communists, then communism can be sold to the capitalists as well.

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