Dave Eggers has developed an astonishing array of story-telling styles. In "What Is the What," his nonfiction novel about a Sudanese lost boy, he proved he could mimic the voice of an African writer. With "Zeitoun," he showed he can be a Didion-eyed journalist, practically invisible, listening to a man's life undone by Hurricane Katrina.
In his latest novel, though, Eggers is quietly attempting something very ambitious. "A Hologram for the King" is a tale of emptiness, where the losses are of the everyday kind -- debts to pay, ex-wives to regret -- even if the setting is exotic.
On top of all this, Eggers has put aside the most dazzling piece of equipment within his narrative arsenal: the first-person voice. Alan Clay, the book's middle-aged hero, does not get to be Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe truth-talker in "The Lay of the Land." In "A Hologram for the King," recently named a finalist for a National Book Award, we hear and experience Alan thinking the old-fashioned way: in the third person.
Operating within this restriction Eggers proves that it is not, in fact, a handicap at all. Alan feels like Eggers' most fully realized character to date. He is tender and principled, yet desperate for some measure of recouping.
In his mid-50s, Alan has washed up on the Red Sea through a series of subtractions. He left college early, quit as a Fuller Brush salesman, turned his back on his father's union background when he helped Schwinn, and other bicycle makers, move their manufacturing overseas.
And so Alan has, in a way, made himself obsolete, something mirrored by his home life. He and his wife split long ago, and Alan has spent so much time away from home on business that his daughter only needs him now for tuition, and on this account, he is also failing her. An attempt to start a line of bicycles made in America has claimed all of his savings.
And so here we find Alan, in a desert, awaiting the arrival of the king, hoping to sell not bicycles, but the air itself: For what else is a hologram? Every day, Alan and his team of younger cohorts journey two hours into the desert for a meeting with one of the king's consorts, and wait. And then wait some more.
The rhythms and texture of their failures will be familiar to anyone who has traveled to the gulf. It's all here: the ghastly heat; the drivers and fixers. The way every conversation seems to proceed in some sort of code, and the menagerie of western grifters and professionals.
If "A Hologram for the King" merely showed us this it would be a stylish, good book. But narrating in discrete paragraphs, some as finely spun as prose poems, Eggers drags three layers of story forward. There is Alan in the desert, getting progressively into more trouble; there is Alan in the past, losing his way in a career; and there is Alan, full of regrets, wondering whether his family will ever boomerang back to him.
The true genius of this book is that as we careen toward its final pages, these stories collapse into one complex tale: the point at which a man's need for love from home and his need to be effective in business meet. Here is the invisible hand of the market as the marionette strings are pulled from above. Yes, it makes the world twitch and dance. But it cannot, as yet, control a man's heart, and in "A Hologram for the King," Eggers has given us a sad and beautiful story where that counts for something.
John Freeman is editor of the literary quarterly Granta and author of "The Tyranny of E-mail."