Under a New Volcano — A Hologram for the King Shows Us the Emptiness of Information Economy

David Eggers’ book brings us something more than Mailer, Hemingway — a New World of Literature About US(A)

I’m watching this thing about how a gigantic new bridge in Oakland, California, is being made in China. Can you imagine? Now they’re making our goddamned bridges, Alan. I got to say, I saw everything else coming. When they closed down the Stride Rite, I saw it coming. When you start shopping out the bikes over there in Taiwan, I saw it coming. I saw the rest of it coming – toys, electronics, furniture. Makes sense if you’re some shitass bloodthirsty executive hellbent on hollowing out the economy for his own gain. All that makes sense. Nature of the beast. But the bridges I did not see coming. By God, we’re having other people make our bridges. And now you’re in Saudi Arabia, selling a hologram to the pharaohs. That takes the cake!

It’s Alan’s father in David Eggers’ book, A Hologram for the King, a bright message in a bottle tossed on the Red Sea. It’s the story of Steve Jobs, Wally World, Amazon Dot Bezos, the prison profiteers. All those off-shore loving Mormons hiding their money. Big London banks laundering drug dealer bucks.  It’s all those fire department nets outside Foxconn ready for jumpers. It’s about 23,000 killed from Union Carbide Bhopal Madness. It’s Triangle Shirtwaist fire, CAFOs putting people into chemo-therapy, the 95 million acres of corn in the USA, and, heck, throw in the soya – annual production of 217.6 million tons in 2005-07; world production of soybeans is predicted to increase by 2.2% annually to 371.3.

Okay, Eggers is really narrowing in on one fellow, in this literary understatement, but more than just poignant and persuasive. The failure of our Baby Boom class to coalesce and actually fight the purveyors of exploitation on a global viral scale is one part of the under pining, critiquing this from a political POV. Still, the book is spot on when it comes to character flaw, the human — American – project of selling and reselling the same spot of territory.

Alan Clay is that canvas, but his struggle for one-last-deal is our struggle to wonder how as a country of 50 states and 2,992 counties and more than 30,000 incorporated municipalities we even wake up daily and believe that red-white-blue lie of United. It’s a dog-eat-dog world of economic development, governments selling citizens and countryside short to lure more corporations and jobs in, at any cost. Eminent domain for football stadiums? How about those Dodgers –

CHAVEZ RAVINE tells the bittersweet story of how an American community was betrayed by greed, political hypocrisy, and good intentions gone astray.

In 1949, photographer Don Normark stumbled on Chávez Ravine, a closely-knit Mexican-American village on a hill overlooking downtown Los Angeles. Enchanted, he stayed for a year and took hundreds of photographs, never knowing he was capturing on film the last images of a place that was about to disappear.

The following year, the city of L.A. evicted the 300 families of Chávez Ravine to make way for a low-income public housing project. The land was cleared, homes, schools, and church razed to the ground. But the real estate lobby, sensing a great opportunity, accused the LA Housing Authority’s Frank Wilkinson of being a communist agent. The city folded and instead of building the promised housing, it sold the land to baseball owner Walter O’Malley, who built Dodger Stadium on the site.

Fifty years later, Normark’s haunting black-and-white photographs reclaim and celebrate a lost village from a simpler time.

We’ll get to looking at Chavez Ravine and how that story is symbolic of everything gone wrong in the USA, world. Another post at DV, in due time!

So, Alan, the ever-resourceful salesman, the guy working this and that angle to make some foothold in society, to make money, to live out some American highballs and backyard pool dream, kids, wife, dog, whatever, well, that struggle is part of Eggers’ stake in literary arts. It’s the back story, but more importantly Alan is brought to us in that vast empty desert, steel and glass high rises, roads to nowhere, and the improbable slow grain of an Arab nation in the clutches of global capital, petro-militarism, the hand of the American Empire and the under shadow of monarchy, misogyny and a Muslim Medusa of spasms.

He’s on the outs, the throwaway after  years of schemes, I.T. junk, the Byzantine Blowhard Bullshit of the Knowledge Economy and Silicon Mastery. It’s the Willy Loman story updated, 2013, this 54-year-old self-employed consultant, on his last game. A fellow hired to bring King Abdullah in his aptly named  KAEC (CAKE) — King Abdullah Economic City – holographic high-tech merchandise, uploaded and down-beamed to a white tent in the middle of the nothingness that is Saudi Arabia.

So these 4-D conferences can take place in the hermetic cave of paranoid King billionaires beholding to Yankee-Brit Imperialism and Zionist cooperation with their respective devils.

Where is the King? is one of the questions for Alan and his three I.T. whizzes. Eggers peels back all those acidic layers of the middling man of America’s managerial class, the man, Alan, ameliorating the needs of the kingdom’s own Arabia Time Schema, this washed out but smart guy Alan who just wants to land the deal before some Chinese company comes in with better images, more whistles, more luster for the hologram buck.

He’s on his last leg, jet lagged, blighted by the sun, the Red Sea’s blue emptiness, the gigantic tankers coming and going. It’s this emblematic idealism, empty but plied to the big deal kind of thinking, and Alan is in this wobbling country that is beholden to these gigantic and porous TNCs, AKA transnational-corporations. Bring the prince and king and kingdom of capital fornicators some new thing that will just about to go global, then end up as another wasted app and toy of the middling masses, and then rapidly peter out to make way for the next generation gizmo, the next great I.T. thing after this holographic teleconferencing system for a king, for Abdullah that is, gets bought up by the first generation buyers.

Alan is first stuck in a high-rise hotel – another one of the TNCs in the portfolio of the globalized Top 500 companies gobbling up all the competitors and innovation. You know, Marriot, Hilton, Accor, IHG and Wyndham.  It’s Jeddah, another sagging city ripping into a third life with post-petro dollars, fake Puritanism and plenty of boozing on the side.

Alan’s on the end of that rope of the modern, middle-aged busines man who is no longer a commodity or even interest in the new globalized world of young interchangeable workers, just like the three young colleagues who sit around with laptops waiting to show this holographic teleconferencing system to King Abdullah, on behalf of Reliant, that American company that is “the largest I.T. supplier in the world.”

Alan is their lead  on this, but he’s a great pretender, not some swashbuckling business guru, but just a guy trying to sell the teleconferencing hardware and software before it becomes obsolete . . . before Alan slides into American Oblivion – 58 or 60, with no country, no benefits, no retirement worth shit, and a daughter wanting that last two years of school in one of the elite colleges America sells young people.

Eggers touches that economic and socio-psychological “never” really self-actualized  – it’s being talked about daily, the end of the PMC, professional managerial class, and Alan Clay is missing his daughter’s expensive college tuition payment, he’s got no tendencies toward sexuality, and he flogs at his own usability by thinking this hologram is the next big thing. Here’s John and Barbara Ehrenreich:

Every would-be populist in American politics purports to defend the “middle class,” although there is no agreement on what it is. Just in the last couple of years, the “middle class” has variously been defined as everybody, everybody minus the 15 percent living below the federal poverty level; or everybody minus the very richest Americans. Mitt Romney famously excluded “those in the low end” but included himself (2010 income $21.6 million) along with “80 to 90 percent” of Americans. The Department of Commerce has given up on income-based definitions, announcing in a 2010 report that “middle class families” are defined “by their aspirations more than their income […]. Middle class families aspire to home ownership, a car, college education for their children, health and retirement security and occasional family vacations”—which excludes almost no one.

Class itself is a muddled concept, perhaps especially in America, where any allusion to the different interests of different occupational and income groups is likely to attract the charge of “class warfare.” If class requires some sort of “consciousness,” or capacity for concerted action, then a “middle class” conceived of as a sort of default class—what you are left with after you subtract the rich and the poor—is not very interesting.

But there is another, potentially more productive, interpretation of what has been going on in the mid-income range. In 1977, we first proposed the existence of a “professional-managerial class,” distinct from both the “working class,” from the “old” middle class of small business owners, as well as from the wealthy class of owners.

In the 1960s, for the first time since the Progressive Era, a large segment of the PMC had the self-confidence to take on a critical, even oppositional, political role. Jobs were plentiful,  a college education did not yet lead to a lifetime of debt, and materialism was briefly out of style. College students quickly moved on from supporting the civil rights movement in the South and opposing the war in Vietnam to confronting the raw fact of corporate power throughout American society—from the pro-war inclinations of the weapons industry to the governance of the university. The revolt soon spread beyond students. By the end of the sixties, almost all of the liberal professions had “radical caucuses,” demanding that access to the professions be opened up to those traditionally  excluded (such as women and minorities), and that the service ethics the professions claimed to uphold actually be applied in practice.

The capitalist offensive

Beginning in the seventies, the capitalist class decisively re-asserted itself. The ensuing capitalist offensive was so geographically widespread and thoroughgoing that it introduced what many leftwing theorists today describe as a new form of capitalism, “neoliberalism.”

The new management strategy was to raise profits by single-mindedly reducing labor costs, most directly by simply moving manufacturing offshore to find cheaper labor. Those workers who remained employed in the United States faced a series of initiatives designed to discipline and control them ever more tightly: intensified supervision in the workplace, drug tests to eliminate slackers, and increasingly professionalized efforts to prevent unionization. Cuts in the welfare state also had a disciplining function, making it harder for workers to imagine surviving job loss

Eggers gives us the internal struggle of Alan to deal with the ennui of endless waiting, the deals gone askew and just waiting for some sort of benediction of a scheme like holograms while genuflecting for the king, any king. Empty unsold condos, unrelenting heat, no Wi-Fi signal, and the promise of the King arriving to see the binary-silicon hard drive magic of some bloke in London communicating with the King, all courtesy of the emptiness of Royalty and I.T. kings and a bunch of sharks and remoras feeding on the economic crumbs of globalization and capitalism gone raw.

Alan’s paid his dues, this long career working for Fuller Brush and then Schwinn bicycles and lots of others.  As his World War Two veteran dad points out, Alan has been part of the phalanx of tens of millions of workers, PMCs, pushing the move to outsource manufacturing that has led to both he and his country becoming precarious, leftovers, unnecessary in this precarious world of wage slaves and I.T. wunderkinds and creative class feeding the insatiable appetite of capital and the One Percent.

Eggers is smooth and skilled with fiction, as he is with non-fiction. The story is crisp, as hot and bare as the desert, and as chiseled as Hemingway’s or Mailer’s.

Alan’s a Kafkaesque character, with this nagging cist on his neck that he eventually rotor roots and spills onto his back. As if that cist is the very empty wasteland detritus of his service to the lords of Wall Street and hedge fund USA. That story within a story is clear here — Alan’s work helped move the Schwinn bike company to Taiwan, and from that point on, bikes, once an American staple and craft, turned into the cheap labor tools of the TNCs who capitalized on the speed and rush of building bikes assembly-line style with those interchangeable and disposable humans in the business of cutting, molding, welding, framing, painting, ratcheting and assembling and boxing redundant and transcontinental, Foxconn style.

It’s the cursed divorced man, finding food in vending machines in Florida, while transfixed by Red Sox DVDs over and over in his suburban Boston home.  We see at the turn of the book’s first chapter Alan’s  neighbor Charlie, a newcomer to transcendentalism, who walks into a lake to his death.

Eggers’ writing is fluid and flooded with themes and the ritualistic form of American fiction, the American novel clean, bright and dynamic.  He started the magazines Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and The Believer. He’s established nonprofit writing and tutorial centers across the country. On top of that work, he’s co-written two feature movies, “Where the Wild Things Are” and “Away We Go.”

He’s a fifth-generation Boston Irish who was  brought up in Lake Forest, Ill. I taught his non-fiction book “Zeitoun” three years ago, about a Syrian American in New Orleans who stays after the flood and inundation of Katrina and government racism and incompetence to heroically help neighbors and trapped dogs and then only to be thrown in the Homeland Security cyclone fence prison on the old Greyhound bus parking lot while his family, temporarily displaced to Phoenix, tried contacting him and then finally freeing him. “Zeitoun”  began as part of a Voice of Witness series of oral histories.

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Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice

Inside This Place, Not Of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons

“It is not every day that we are needed.” — Samuel Beckett

Eggers delivers this American nostalgia, the constant slippage of idealism or the lost in the forest of whatever it means to be tapped into the knowledge economy, or whatever the information age has to do with even more Americans – and certainly now most humans – developing a sense of nothingness, empty and adrift on a sea of maddening meaningless work, skills that aren’t real tools of humanity, precarious work, slaves to debt, slaves to consumption.

He’s got Panza, the Caprice driving chauffer Saudi who rocks it with Fleetwood Mac and drives the 30-year-old rig around the peninsula to help Alan make the endless and pointless appointments at KAEC, and even takes him to a mountain village where men look for wolves to shoot.

Alan is a character rarely explored in literature – middle class, on the slide, defeated and disengaged, the symbol of an age come and gone and going somewhere that bespeaks a new generation of wanderers trapped in the cacophony of capitalism and seamless  capital and endless economies of scale that turn humanity inside out, like a grouper yanked quickly to the surface, bloated by its own recompression embolism.

It’s as if all of Eggers’ world in A Hologram for the King is suffering from the bends.

Quotes from the book:

“Live long enough and you’ll disappoint everyone. People think you’re able to help them and usually you can’t. And so it becomes a process of choosing the one or two people you try hardest not to disappoint. The person in my life I am determined not to disappoint is you.” — Alan Clay

“We’ve become a nation of indoor cats, he’d said. A nation of doubters, worriers, overthinkers. Thank God these weren’t the kind of Americans who settled this country. They were a different breed! They crossed the country in wagons with wooden wheels! People croaked along the way, and they barely stopped. Back then, you buried your dead and kept moving.” —  Alan Clay’s father

“Live long enough and you’ll disappoint everyone. People think you’re able to help them and usually you can’t. And so it becomes a process of choosing the one or two people you try hardest not to disappoint. The person in my life I am determined not to disappoint is you.”  – Alan Clay writing to his daughter

*****

“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.”

“Think too much and you know you are nothing. Think just enough and you know you are small, but important to some. That’s the best you can do.”

“Anything built here, an unrelenting desert, was an act of sheer will imposed on territory unsuited for habitation.”

“Why was he alive on Earth? Very often the meaning was obscured. Very often it required some digging. The meaning of his life was an elusive stream of water hundreds of feet below the surface, and he would periodically drop a bucket down the well, fill it, bring it up and drink from it. But this did not sustain him for long.”

Paul Kirk has been a journalist since 1977. He's covered police, environment, planning and zoning, county and city politics, as well as working in true small town/community journalism situations in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Mexico and beyond. He's been a part-time faculty since 1983, and as such has worked in prisons, gang-influenced programs, universities, colleges, alternative high schools, language schools, as a private contractor-writing instructor for US military in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Washington. Read other articles by Paul.