Reviewed by Brendan Wright

A Hologram for the King is a gentle tale, written in a subtle and unassuming style. The story, set mainly in Saudi Arabia, follows businessman Alan Clay as he and his team attempt to sell their hologram and videoconferencing technology to King Abdullah. Alan is the old guard, in his 50s and struggling to keep up with the changes in the world he inhabits. He was successful in his youth but a series of unfortunate business choices have meant he has lost his way, both in life and work, and he knows this business deal is a final chance for redemption.

The plot is slight, with the days somewhat merging into one another as the team move back and forth between their hotel and the King Abdullah Economic City where they are continually frustrated by the news that the King, to whom they will present their business case, is absent and there is no concrete date for rescheduling. Alan's slow meltdown becomes the central theme of the novel as he struggles to come to terms with the changing world, fighting a crippling sense of failure and paranoia. Flashbacks to the life he has left behind and the constant shadow of his daughter provide some background on the causes of Alan’s troubles. In a small way, this reflects Eggers' deeper thought that runs throughout the novel, as he tracks the decline of American industry in the face of overseas competition. It occasionally reads as something of a parable, yet the author is never heavy handed with his themes, with the story delivered in a sparse and measured prose that is at times sobering.

Alan is not a particularly likeable protagonist, too often bemoaning his lot and rueing past mistakes, yet he is easy to pity. One feels there is still a spark there - though beaten down and heavily dampened - and all he needs is to catch a break for his life to turn. Yet Eggers places him in increasingly absurd situations, seeming to create a Kafkaesque world around him, from illicit parties at the Danish embassy drinking bootlegged liquor to hunting wolves out in the desert with locals. The confusion is disorientating for both reader and Alan himself, lending a strange feeling of detachment and otherworldliness to some parts of the novel, only adding to the sense of place and 'foreigness' that the author manages to create throughout the novel.

A Hologram for the King does not have the same swagger and bravado as Egger’s early work, though the humour remains, coming partly through Alan's obsession with jokes but also in his relationship with Yousef, who was hired as his driver but quickly becomes his friend. However, the gentle and pared back style is one of the successes of the book, seeming to hold the reader at a slight distance, always overseeing rather than sharing in Alan's emotions. It is a simple tale, with the occasional absurd situations providing what little action is there. Yet in this tale of one man’s struggle to adapt to the changing world, Eggers has crafted a beguiling and wonderful book about the passing of time and the nature of regrets.

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Brendan Wright

Brendan is an Arts graduate living and working in London. He has a deep fascination in the history of the city, and takes pleasure in hunting for blue plaques scattered through the street’s of the capital, as well as discovering tucked away pubs and squares. There is no better place than a pub with armchairs and a fire. He can often be found rambling along the South Bank, and is a regular theatre- and concert-goer, particularly jumping at the opportunity to see anything Beckett. His literary loves include Haruki Murakami, Stephen King, and Terry Pratchett, but he will happily read anything. This year has brought the surprising discovery that Brendan actually enjoys Dickens, and he is now slowly working through his novels. He is currently finding great enjoyment in Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series.

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The first ten paperback Penguin books appeared in 1935 costing 6d each (the price of a packet of cigarettes). Since then the Penguin list has developed enormously, but still aims to bring the best writing to the widest possible audience. Penguin Paperbacks now range from Booker Prize-winning contemporary authors, to mass market bestsellers, with successful history, biography and general non-fiction as well.

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