Dave Eggers’ “A Hologram for the King” is one of those books that is particularly well-suited for an audiobook adaptation. Eggers writes in short, punchy sections. He has long since put aside the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sentences of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” in favor of a stripped-down and accessible lyricism that is one part Michael Chabon, one part Stephen Elliott, and which feels not unlike a conversation with an intelligent friend. Most of all, the book owes something to the theatrical tradition. Its most immediately recognizable forebears aren’t novels so much as they are plays of American commerce such as Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.” And the book’s sly epigraph (“It is not every day that we are needed”) is taken from Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”
The novel’s premise is appealing. The protagonist, Alan Clay, is a broke and aging sales consultant whose last chance at redeeming his life (and his retirement account) is to impress King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia with a holographic conference system and convince him to deliver to Alan’s American clients the IT contract for the yet-unbuilt King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC, pronounced “cake”), a wonder meant to rival the rise of Dubai from the desert. He is teamed with three 20-something go-getters who regard him warily. Day after day, they wait in a tent for a meeting with King Abdullah and his surrogate Karim al-Ahmad. Their counterparts, lesser Saudi decision-makers and foreign-born consultants who work in an unfinished office tower known as the Black Box, have likewise been waiting for the arrival of King Abdullah, whom they haven’t seen for 18 months. It is unclear, in fact, whether the elderly king will decide to finish building his great city, or if he will live long enough to make the decision at all. (Indeed, an alternate title for this book might well have been "Waiting for the King.")
The story has the virtue of being timely. Alan himself was one of the many architects of the global economic changes that have led to his own diminishment. As a young Fuller Brush man, he learned the four angles-of-sale (Money, Romance, Self-Preservation, Recognition) that, taken together, provide an appeal to move every kind of potential customer to action. He used those skills to rocket to the top of the Chicago-based bicycle manufacturer Schwinn. Once installed as an executive, he helped bust the local factory union. Then he outsourced the work to places like Hungary, Taiwan and China, where cheap labor meant larger margins. Then smart people in those places cut out what was by then the middleman — Schwinn, and Alan — and soon both were more-or-less out of business, casualties of their own profit-scheming, a story not unique to the bicycle business. Now he is a rare and dying breed — a me-to-you salesman in an era dominated by the cold calculus of spreadsheet decision-making. Quixotically, he hopes to use his commission on the Saudi sale to build a boutique bicycle manufacturing operation in Boston, a move that seems as much a bid for personal redemption as it is an investment in a comfortable retirement.
Not all of Alan’s trouble is self-inflicted. He has a tumorous neck cyst, possibly cancerous, which so terrifies him that he is afraid to see a doctor for a diagnosis. He has injured and re-injured his ankle. His daughter is threatening to break off contact with his abusive ex-wife, a development that he fears might soon lead to a further break with her father. His ex-wife is pushing him to sell the house they jointly own, but as hard as he has tried, post-housing bubble, he can’t get it sold. And he is haunted by the death of a friend who has frozen to death in the lake beside Alan’s house. It is a mark of Eggers’ steady hand that this piling-on of trouble is not only convincing, but also causes the reader to care deeply for the protagonist, and to root for him.
There are a few things about the hardcover that I wasn’t sure would translate to the audiobook. First, the book is heavily reliant on the use of white space to indicate a shift in time, event or speaker. The beginning of the white space at the end of a short section within a chapter often causes the stress to fall on a sentence in a way that is immediately apparent to the reader, but might be less apparent to the listener. Second, like James Joyce, Eggers uses em dashes rather than quotation marks to indicate dialogue. Often this means that it is up to the reader to determine who is speaking, without benefit of a "he said" or a "she said." Third, the McSweeney’s edition, with its luxurious foil-stamped cover with its rich geometrical patterning and gold ink lettering, incites in the reader a sense of grandeur at seeing and holding it, and this feeling of beauty and largeness becomes an important part of the reading experience, lending the words themselves a special authority.
Fortunately, the audio delivery by Dion Graham ("Law and Order," "The Wire") seems to anticipate these worries, and compensate for them with a distinguished delivery. It is smooth enough to stay out of the way of the forward motion of the narration, and varied enough to help the reader track the many competing unattributed voices we hear in dialogue. Graham is the narrator of five of Eggers’ six previous audiobooks, and for each he has offered a slight shift in his tonal register to replicate something of the timbre of the book. In "A Hologram for the King," he pursues a kind of accordioning strategy, in which a regularized ramping-up and releasing of vocal tension mirrors each chapter’s pleasing push-pull of scene and narration. His skillful performance goes a long way toward breaking up the monotony that sometimes creeps into those lesser audiobooks that run for several hours at a single vocal speed. The result is worthy of the highest compliment that might be paid an audiobook narrator: For long stretches of time, the listener forgets that what he or she is doing is listening.
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