So, I work in Saudi Arabia. For two years, I lived there too. Recently though, I’ve decided life is better across the 20km bridge separating this nation from Bahrain, where I now live. The commute, which can take up to two hours on the way home, is very much worth it.
Now, I have a friend, a very dear friend, Matt, who lives somewhere many people would find even less appealing than Saudi: Cleveland, Ohio. If you want to know what Cleveland is like, you have to see the Cleveland Tourism Video on YouTube. Trust me, just watch it.
But I digress.
Matt recently sent me a book for my birthday which is set in Saudi Arabia. It’s called A Hologram for the King and it’s by Dave Eggers who I’ve never heard of let alone read anything by. But (apart from a horrible experience with the first Harry Potter book) I usually regard Matt’s recommendations in any department as very worth making note of. This was a fun read and with all the heavy stuff I read off the 1001 list, it’s been a long time since I’ve read anything so easy. It was so easy, I almost felt guilty reading it.
Was it worth it? Well, yes. Yes, I think it was, but I have to say I only think it was worth it for me because I’ve lived in Saudi and know something about it. Had I been living the last two years in, say, Burkina Faso, I don’t think I would have found this such a captivating read. And then I don’t think Matt would have sent it to me in the first place.
Alan Clay is a businessman attempting to present some hologram technology to (the now late) King Abdullah. As is typical, the trip descends into farce with delays, misinformation, more delays and adventures arising mostly out of Eggers’ imagination rather than any reality. The reality would be far, far too tedious and devoid of incident to make a novel out of.
Has Eggers captured Saudi accurately? I think he has in many ways. That quote below about the infamous homebrew spirit sid (don’t let anyone tell you Saudi has no rivers!) is absolutely spot on (apparently!) This is one example where he’s nailed it; his sequences where Alan gets hit by homebrew in the lonely cell of his hotel room are absolutely classic.
But there were many others that just didn’t work. Alan Clay complains about the heat hitting him like a hammer but has dinner on his hotel balcony. No one eats on a balcony when the summer sun is that hot. He mentions Filipinos doing gardening work on the roads, but, er, no, that would be Bangladeshis or Indians. Filipinos do office or retail/service industry jobs in Saudi. Their hosts are very discriminating when it comes to nationality. And when I read “they sped through the city,” I thought, “Ha, ha… good one!” No one speeds through Jeddah. The traffic is legendarily appalling.
There was enough in there that rang true though, but for the undiscerning, you’re likely to come away with as many false as true impressions.
What troubled me more were the fairly ludicrous plot turns: a Danish businesswoman tries to seduce him, he almost shoots someone, he drives a multi-million pound yacht, he ends up very intimately involved with a Saudi woman… and all this on a brief business trip to Jeddah. Hmmmm. There’s a distinct lack of plausibility about the whole thing that means it’s hard to take Alan seriously when you are faced with the fact that his life is a fairly sad and lamentable affair. That’s a shame, I thought.
There’s no doubt that Eggers can write amusing, entertaining prose and that he can create characters that you want to know more about. But I think because he can write and because he can create characters and entertain you, that’s what he does at the cost of perhaps communicating something a bit more meaningful and meaty. I’m either a snob, or just used to more carefully crafted novels. Maybe that amounts to the same thing!
Key: Legacy | Plot / toPic | Characterisation / faCts | Readability | Achievement | StyleRead more about how I come up with my ratings