In this novel, protagonist Alan Clay is a salesman facing bankruptcy and ruin who travels to Saudi Arabia with the goal of selling a hologram (and the larger business package that goes with it) to King Abdullah. This novel is an absurdist comedy, as King Abdullah consistently fails to show up, leaving Alan and his three young co-workers to languish in a tent in the middle of a city that is planned but mostly not yet built. It’s also a work of social satire and a midlife cri de coeur in the vein of Orwell’s Coming Up for Air, and at times I even felt as if I were reading a parable of sorts.
As a young salesman working for Schwinn, Alan learned that all sales are driven by four human insecurities: the compulsions toward money, romance, self-preservation, and recognition. While I don’t remember Eggers making any direct references to Death of a Salesman, I certainly felt the presence of Willy Loman in this novel’s flashbacks to Alan’s years of learning salesmanship and gaining confidence and authority in a world whose rules he understood. In the novel’s present day, however, Schwinn’s bicycles have long been outsourced, and Alan is suffering from the poor effects of several ventures he made in attempts to regain his status and capital. He has a bitchy ex-wife, a daughter whose college tuition he can’t pay, a home that was depleted of all its character during the real estate “staging” process but still didn’t sell, and a growth of some kind on the back of his neck that he assumes (and possibly hopes) is malignant, and he’s also afflicted by insomnia, alcoholism, and a risky and aggravating tendency to wander.
The book begins with Alan sleeping through his alarm. He has missed the shuttle bus to the King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC, pronounced “cake”), where he thinks he and his colleagues will be giving their presentation to the king later that day. Hung over and preoccupied with his neck growth, he arranges for a ride and meets Yousef, a young, amusing Saudi man and a friend-of-a-friend of the hotel concierge. Of course getting into Yousef’s car is ill-advised, but Alan – who has no qualms about doing ill-advised things – accepts the ride anyway. It happens that Yousef is a good guy and the only truly likeable character in the novel, though he always seems to be tiptoeing around the edges of moneylending, corruption, and organized violence. By the time Alan reaches the KAEC, it is early afternoon.
This is an ongoing pattern in this book: Alan is never quite where he should be. He seems to be a wanderer by nature, so even when he does catch the shuttle to the KAEC on time, he has a way of wandering off to odd places. Even Alan himself is confused by his tendency to wander off: “Alan wondered, continually, about his own behavior. No sooner had he done something, something like hide behind a hill of dirt by the Red Sea, when he would wonder, Who is this man who leaves the presentation to hide behind a hill of dirt?” (158).
When he wanders, Alan tends to stumble upon little subworlds that are kept apart from the public eye. When a real estate developer at the KAEC tries to sell him a condo in an on-site building and invites him to take an elevator to a specific floor, where he’ll be able to see the condo unit, Alan spontaneously exits the elevator at a different floor, which has barely been touched architecturally – it’s still a skeleton-like framework of support beams – where a throng of shirtless Saudi men are fighting over a cell phone. Alan intervenes in the fight (??) and discovers that the phone is one that his co-worker Cayley threw in the garbage the day before, after she replaced it. On the floor above, as promised, an immaculate and luxuriously appointed condo awaits his inspection.
A sense of incongruity and wrongness is everywhere in this novel. Alan is the wrong man for the wrong job in the wrong country, and over and over again he makes bad decisions and is surprised when the world around him is incongruous with how it “should” be. Even the geographical incongruity of Saudi Arabia – of a civilization springing up in the most barren of deserts – disturbs and fascinates Alan: “My God, he thought, did people belong in this part of the world? The earth is an animal that shakes off its fleas when they dig too deep, bite too hard. It shifts and our cities fall; it sighs and the coasts are overtaken. We really shouldn’t be here at all” (102). Shortly after he is tempted by the luxury condo (his bankruptcy apparently forgotten), Alan accompanies Yousef to his family’s ancestral home, where Yousef will be hiding from some thugs to whom he owes money. Once again, Alan is totally out of place here and finds the mountain village not only antithetical to the rest of Saudi Arabia but to Yousef’s father, who otherwise strikes Alan as a close-minded, rodent-like Philistine with no room in his life for anything aesthetic. At the same time, though Alan is overtaken by a sort of pastoral longing and even contemplates moving to Saudi Arabia himself: “He decided he could live here. He decided he could be content this way, if he’d built a home like this. All he needed was some space, somewhere removed from anywhere, where the land was cheap and building was easy. He shared the dreams of Yousef’s father, the need to return to one’s origins, build something lasting, something open and strange like this fortress, something that could be shared by family and friends, everyone who had helped nurture him. But what were Alan’s origins? He had no ancestral village. He had Dedham. Was Dedham an ancestral village? No one there had any idea who he was. Was he from Duxbury? Was he attached at all to that town, or anyone to him? In Duxbury, Alan couldn’t even build a wall” (234). Yet just twelve pages later, Alan is back to his suspicions about the relationship of man to geography: “People should not settle in a rocky terrain devoid of water and rain. But where should they live? Nature tells man that she will kill him anywhere. In flat land, she will kill him with tornadoes. Live near a coast and she will send tsunamis to erase centuries of work. Earthquakes mock all engineering, all notions of permanence. Nature wants to kill, kill, kill, laugh at our work, wipe itself clean. But people lived wherever they wanted, and they lived here too, in this impossible valley, and they thrived. Thrived? They lived. They survived, reproduced, sent their children to the cities to make money. The children made money and came back to level hillsides and build castles in the same impossible valley. The work of man is done behind the back of the natural world. When nature notices, and can muster the energy, it wipes the slate clean again” (246).
As portrayed in this novel, Saudi Arabia is a hollow place – all plans and no execution, all gloss and no substance. The KAEC – which a Saudi businessman admits to Alan is no longer the king’s pet project and will likely never be completed – is a great symbol for global industrialization gone wrong, and Alan is the poster child for rootlessness, for a world where building a stable life is less important than outrunning one’s creditors and keeping one’s secret failures hidden. It’s the world, honestly, that I fear Donald Trump will build here – a world made on the cheap, gilded walls enclosing hollow centers.
I enjoyed this novel on many levels. Like Eggers’ other work, this little racecar can move – I read it over a few days but am sure I could have read it in one sitting if I had had time. Alan is the kind of protagonist that is riveting specifically because he makes such horrible choices (think Bigger Thomas in Part I of Native Son), and much of the entertainment value of this novel is of the rubbernecking variety. For example, one night in the hotel, a drunken Alan decides to investigate the growth on his neck using a variety of improvised tools made from the contents of his hotel bathroom and carry-on bag. When Yousef takes him to the doctor (another side trip that keeps Alan away from the KAEC for most of a day), Alan for some reason agrees to allow this doctor – a female doctor, unusual for Saudi Arabia – to operate on his tumor, and later she becomes his love interest. This part of the plot stretched my willingness to suspend my disbelief, but overall Alan’s hapless wanderings made for a compelling read.
Besides Alan and Yousef, most of the characters in this novel are flat, and this novel makes no claims to be character-driven. It’s two parts tragedy – with Alan as the tragic hero and only important character, since his decline is his own fault – one part comedy of errors, and one part novel of ideas and social satire about globalization. I know that Tom Hanks played Alan in the recent movie adaptation, which strikes me as a horrible choice. Every character Hanks plays – dating all the way back to Buffy in Bosom Buddies (and NO, I didn’t have to look up the name of his character; what do you think I did during my childhood, played outside?) – has a certain inner wisdom, and Alan has no inner wisdom at all. Like the KAEC, he’s all surface, no substance.
I recommend this novel to a wide variety of readers, and it strikes me as a particularly good text to introduce teenagers and young adults to the practice of social satire. I recommend it for summer reading lists and school libraries, as well as to individual readers.