(originally posted August 10, 2012 and updated April 29, 2016) – The movie version is out, a sleek ninety-minutes featuring Tom Hanks and some stunning photography from the fictional and troubled megaplex being built by the Red Sea, and from a homogenized Jeddah hotel (where the concierge repeatedly recites “Welcome to the Hyatt”in an Arab accent). There is a scene with some great footage shot in Mecca, where Alan Clay (Hanks) nervously hides in the car as a non-Moslem.
It’s an important movie, a tale of love and redemption that informs us about international relations, specifically with the Arab world. In these times perhaps some will find it increases understanding and peels away blind hate.
It’s also a take on how it can be sometimes to work in IT. You get sent on a boondoggle, the conditions suck, the network is down, you’re hungry, and no one pays attention to you unless you complain enough or do something outside the rules (like Alan sneaking upstairs without a badge).
In the novel, Eggers’ writing style is clean and direct, similar to the clipped style he used in “Zeitoun.” The book’s print job has illogical spacing. In some instances a gap is put between sentences obviously belonging to the same paragraph. Without the random spacing, and with some merciful reduction of a few scenes here and there, this thing could be close to novella land.
The story moves well, conventionally, and slows down in the middle. It is loaded with humor: the character Yousef is an instant hit, Westernized and corrupted by two cultures. The novel gives a rare look inside the unknown world of the UAE. It’s a dual world, orderly on the surface, yet disordered on the underside. The work ethic is amorphous. Imports do much of it (“We don’t have unions. We have Fillpinos”). The orgiastic scene at the Danish embassy pretty well sums up the conflicting “moral guidelines” of compound residents vs. citizens.
The protagonist (Alan Clay) suffers a frustrating impasse inside the King’s new business complex, as he and his IT team wait for a chance to make their big pitch to sell the Arabs a holographic teleconferencing product. Meanwhile they’re stuck in a tent, largely ignored, without food and without wi-fi. During this seemingly endless delay, Alan begins to fall apart. We are privy to flashback after flashback of guilt, shame, and failure.
He’s not a happy guy. And neither are we, suffering along with him. Along the way, we are reminded of the disembowelment of our economy by handing over all our work to cheap labor outside the country. There is a strong section about PPG Glass losing the new Freedom Tower contract to China, who manages to get the work Alan and his crew were after, too. Eggers manages to fit this into the story without making it shout editorial interruption.
Alan’s history of failure with the dying American bike company, Schwinn, is put in contrast to his new dreams as an IT salesman who helps wire the New Arabia. So we have mechanical vs. electronic, the tangible vs. ethereal.
Alan can’t seem to do much right. Two seductive ladies fall for him (we don’t know why), and he can’t handle that either. Can’t perform. One of them is a doctor who surgically excavates the cyst on his spine. Little goes right for them. As she eventually says, “it’s all very sad.”
At the end where we are dropped off, it appears as if finagling a job with the King’s “start-up” business will be his last chance saloon. His last chance to build something to save himself. He’s a man without a country. With a hole in his back.
The movie, however, has things end on a happier note.