A middle-aged man scrapes for his identity in a Saudi Arabian city of the future.
This book by McSweeney’s founder Eggers (Zeitoun, 2009, etc.) inverts the premise of his fiction debut, 2002’s You Shall Know Our Velocity. That novel was a globe-trotting tale about giving away money; this one features a hero stuck in one place and desperate to make a bundle. Alan Clay is a 50-something American salesperson for an information technology company angling for a contract to wire King Abdullah Economic City, a Saudi commerce hub. Alan and his team are initially anxious to deliver their presentation to the king—which features a remote speaker appearing via hologram—but they soon learn the country moves at a snaillike pace. So Alan drifts: He wanders the moonscape of the sparely constructed city, obsesses over a cyst on his back, bonds with his troubled driver, pursues fumbling relationships with two women, ponders his debts and recalls his shortcomings as a salesman, husband and father. This book is in part a commentary on America’s eroding economic might (there are numerous asides about offshoring and cheap labor), but it’s mostly a potent, well-drawn portrait of one man’s discovery of where his personal and professional selves split and connect. Eggers has matured greatly as a novelist since Velocity: Where that novel was gassy and knotted, this one has crisp sentences and a solid structure. He masters the hurry-up-and-wait rhythm of Alan’s visit, accelerating the prose when the king’s arrival seems imminent then slackening it again. If anything, the novel’s flaws seem to be products of too much tightening: An incident involving a death back home feels clipped and some passages are reduced to fablelike simplicity.
Even so, Eggers’ fiction has evolved in the past decade. This book is firm proof that social concerns can make for resonant storytelling.