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Kafka on the Gulf: Male Identity, Space, and Globalization in Dave Eggers's A Hologram for the King and Arnon Grunberg's The Man without Illness

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Abstract

In 2012, two curiously similar novels appeared in the Netherlands and the United States: Dave Eggers's A Hologram for the King and Arnon Grunberg's The Man without Illness. Both feature Western male protagonists who travel to the Gulf region for business purposes and utterly fail. This article explores these narratives as “fictions of globalization” (James Annesley) that use spatial tropes and imaginaries as well as multiple references to the work of Franz Kafka to tell stories of alienation and Western masculine failure in the global capitalist economy. In both novels an alternative is imagined as possible only from a marginal position outside the discourses and spaces of globalization: in intimacy, personal encounters, and gestures of care.
STEPHAN BESSER AND YRA VAN DIJK
Kafka on the Gulf:
Male Identity, Space,
and Globalization in
Dave Eggerss A Hologram
for the King and
Arnon Grunberg’s
The Man without Illness
WHEN DAVE EGGERS’S NOVEL A Hologram for the King appeared in June
2012, Dutch critics experienced a sense of déjà vu, as though they had
read an alternative version of the novel just a couple of weeks before, albeit in a
dierent language and by a dierent author: De man zonder ziekte (The Man with-
out Illness) by Arnon Grunberg, which A Hologram for the King closely resembles
in subject matter, plot structure, and narrative perspective. Both novels feature
Western(ized) middle-class men who are sent on business assignments to the
Middle East, and in both the protagonists fail in their attempts to secure a con-
tract for a huge infrastructural project in Saudi Arabia (Eggers) or to build a
giant library and bunker in Dubai (Grunberg). In addition, both Eggers and
Grunberg modeled their novels on real-world events the construction of the
King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia and the assassination of Hamas
military commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh by Mossad agents and rely on
explicit and indirect references to the work of Franz Kafka to describe their pro-
tagonists’ experiences of disorientation and estrangement.
In this article, we will approach both novels as “fictions of globalization” (James
Annesley) that focus on a specific subject position: namely, Westernized middle-
class men as they experience global capital and the neo-liberal world economic
order. In this regard, the two novels are part of a larger literary trend that includes
works such as Hari Kunzru’s Transmission (2005; see Johansen) and, in the Low
Countries, Flemish writer Tom Lanoye’s 2013 novel Gelukkige slaven (Happy Slaves).
We will show that Grunberg and Eggers articulate their protagonists’ experience
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1 Annesley uses this metaphor repeatedly to describe the relation of literary texts and theories of
globalization, for instance in “Market Corrections” (115, 122) and Fictions of Globalization (69, 96,
123, 131).
of a decentered global economy by employing a pattern of representation that we
call the spatial imagination of globalization. Both novels use spatial tropes and
imaginaries to transform the essentially neo-colonial plot that the male protago-
nists have in mind for their business trips to the Middle East into unsettling stories
of growing alienation and the failure of Western masculinity.
Fictions of Globalization
James Annesley has coined the term “fiction of globalization” to describe the
ways in which literature relates to cultural and political imaginaries of global con-
sumer capitalism. Drawing on Arjun Appadurai’s claim that in the current global
cultural economy the imagination has become a “social practice” that shapes real-
ity in new ways (Fictions 6), Annesley regards literature as an important agent in
the imagination of globalization itself (cf. O’Brien and Szeman 604). He focuses
in particular on the ways in which literary texts rework and “shadow”1 contempo-
rary discourses and debates around globalization, detailing, for instance, the
echoes of Naomi Klein’s No Logo in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001) and
the correspondences between Alex Garland’s novel The Beach (1996) and Antonio
Negri and Michael Hardt’s Empire (2000). Hence, reading literature can help to
“refine ways of knowing globalization’s discourses” (6). In his study of recent liter-
ary fictions of globalization Annesley concentrates in particular on representa-
tions of contemporary consumer culture, branding, and the forces of the market.
The view of globalization that he detects in works such as Don DeLillo’s Under-
world and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies is less gloomy and pessimistic than
one might expect. Rejecting “polarized accounts of consumption and the mar-
ket,” Annesley claims that “recent American fiction oers an alternative to pessi-
mistic visions of a contemporary culture characterized by ever greater levels of
coordination” and asserts that “critical and creative possibilities can be sustained
within a globalizing consumer society and through relations with consumption”
(10–12). While Annesley concedes that works such as Underworld can seem like a
“homological reflection” of the forces of globalization without much power to
interrogate or resist it (68), he is always prepared to see critical forces in novels by
Eggers, DeLillo, Lahiri, Gibson, and others if not on a thematic level then on
the level of style and language.
Although the thematic focus of Eggers’s and Grunberg’s novels is slightly
dierent they deal with the global economy rather than with consumer culture
the questions they raise are quite similar to the ones that concern Annesley: How
do these fictions imagine and construct processes of economic globalization?
Which discourses and debates on globalization do they reflect and rework, and
how do they integrate them into the fictitious worlds they create? Moreover, how
do they relate to critical and pessimistic views of globalization found, according to
Annesley, in many mainstream political comments on the phenomenon?
At the same time, the extensive use of spatial imagery in A Hologram for the King
and The Man without Illness also points to certain limitations in Annesley’s the-
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2 Annesley occasionally discusses the role of spatial tropes in his material, for instance in his
reading of the description of the construct ion of the Twin Towers in New York Cit y in Don DeLillo’s
Underworld as an example of Anthony Giddens’s concept of “distanciation” (Fictions 6566).
3 We understand the “Kafkaesque” as the representation of a world that is characterized by
incomprehensible power relations, often dominated by large economic, juridical, or other state
apparatuses, and that evokes feelings of alienation, distress, and ontological insecurity.
matic and discursive approach, which tends to neglect aspects of imagery that do
not map neatly onto specific discourses of globalization or even point beyond con-
tainment in discourse altogether. To be sure, spatial meaning is always “discur-
sively produced,” as Mariano Siskind reminds us, particularly in the context of
geopolitics and globalization (343).2 The ambiguous and often disturbing lan-
guage of space in both novels, however, does not translate easily into a position in
the globalization debate and has a tendency, as Siskind observes, to bring together
dierent areas of concern in new constellations. In Eggers’s and Grunberg’s novels
these issues involve gender relations and questions of care and ethical responsibil-
ity that seem to transgress discourses of globalization. And it is precisely the inter-
action of these elements that makes A Hologram for the King and The Man without
Illness so curiously similar and also questions the possibility of a critique of dis-
courses of globalization from within.
Significantly, the very term “globalization” or mondialization evokes the geo-
cosmological figure of Earth as an object of human interventions of various sorts,
an imagination that Benjamin Lazier has called the “globalization of the world
picture” (614). It is thus not surprising that various social and media theories for
instance, notions of “space-time compression” (Harvey 260–326), conceptions of
the “global village” (McLuhan), environmental constructions of a “sense of planet”
(Heise), concepts of “planetarity” (Spivak 71–117), a global “space of flows” (Cas-
tells), and global “scapes” (Appadurai 27–47) employ spatial imagery to describe
what globalization is and how it produces an integrated yet fragmented and disso-
nant multitude of connections on a worldwide scale. The novels we discuss contrib-
ute to such spatial imagination of globalization in a specific way. Rather than just
rehearsing a certain repertoire of spatial tropes of globalization hotels, airports,
and other “non-places” (Marc Augé) both novels depict the “globalizing world”
(as the slightly tautological saying goes) as a Kafkaesque conglomerate of confus-
ing, incompatible and alienating spaces in which actual communication and
understanding seem nearly impossible.3 Specifically, they both dramatize the dis-
solution of center-periphery models of the global economy as a narrative of mascu-
line failure. In A Hologram for the King, Alan Clay, a middle-aged American salesman
and self-employed corporate consultant, proves unfit for the strenuous demands of
the twenty-first-century postindustrial economy. In The Man without Illness, Sam
Ambani, a Swiss architect of Indian descent, who twice travels to the Middle East,
eventually pays with his life for his ignorance and misjudgments of the political,
economic, and juridical situation in Dubai.
We start with a consideration of the ways in which Eggers uses a highly charged
vocabulary of building and mapping in order to articulate his protagonist’s loss of
control, move on with a discussion of the spatial and existential disorientation of
Sam Ambani in The Man without Illness, and conclude with a comparison of the use
that both novels make of their spatial imagery to address issues of ethics and alter-
ity. Our focus on space will uncover a much more pessimistic view of globalization
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in both novels than Annesley found in the works analyzed in Fictions of Globaliza-
tion. The possibility of critique that Annesley situates within globalized capitalism
is imagined in these novels as possible only outside the discourses and spaces of
globalization: in intimate contacts, personal encounters, and gestures of care.
Deterritorialization and Nostalgia in A Hologram for the King
Standing at the window of his room on the tenth floor of the Hilton hotel in
Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), American salesman Alan Clay looks out over the vast and
pristine coast of the Red Sea and fantasizes about changing his life. A fifty-four-
year-old divorced corporate consultant with a debt of $130,000, Clay is troubled by
more than the usual midlife crisis. If his attempt to get a lucrative IT contract at
King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) for his current employer Reliant, an Amer-
ican company and “the largest IT supplier in the world” (20), should fail, Clay will
not be able to pay his daughter’s college tuition and will probably lose all pros-
pects of turning his one-man consulting firm into a prosperous business. How-
ever, as location turns into metaphor, the outlook over the Red Sea endows Alan
with a new, vitalizing sense of potential success and ownership of his life: “Alan
watched the waves break gently against the shore. Who knew that Saudi Arabia
had a vast and pristine coast? . . . Some days he could encompass the world. Some
days he could see for miles. Some days he climbed over the foothills of indier-
ence to see the landscape of his life and future for what it was: mappable, travers-
able, achievable” (16).
This hope, however, along with the position of colonial overview and autonomy
it implies here, is constantly and systematically frustrated in the course of the
novel. As the team leader of a group of three young American IT engineers, Alan
spends several weeks waiting for an opportunity to convince the King of Saudi
Arabia through the demonstration of an elaborate holographic projection
involving the virtual 3D presence of a Reliant manager in London on a stage in
Saudi Arabia to award the contract for the construction of the communication
infrastructure of KAEC to Reliant. From their hotel in Jeddah, Alan and his team
travel almost daily via a shuttle service or by taxi to the construction site of the
future postindustrial city that, fittingly, still only exists for the most part as an
architectural model and digital projection in a promotional film. At the construc-
tion site, the Americans spend their days in a large tent, without any concrete
information about the date of their presentation or the arrival of the monarch.
Eggers employs numerous allusions to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and works by
Franz Kafka, in particular Das Schloss (The Castle), to describe their predicament.
One can also detect intertextual echoes of Kafka’s short story “Die kaiserliche
Botschaft” (“The Message from the Emperor”), in which an eagerly awaited mes-
sage from the emperor never reaches its addressee. The exhausting and frustrat-
ing wait for the King is only interrupted by a trip that Clay takes to the native vil-
lage of his driver Yousef in the Sarawat Mountains near Mecca. When they return
and the presentation finally takes place, the contract is awarded to a Chinese com-
pany. The decline of the U.S. as an economic and manufacturing superpower is
condensed in Clay’s frustrations about his indifferent treatment by the local
potentate: “When it [the presentation] was over, King Abdullah clapped gently but
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said nothing. There were no follow-up questions. Neither he nor anyone from his
entourage spoke to anyone from Reliant” (310).
The psychological, spatial, and economic dynamics with which Clay has to deal
in the process of his defeat can best be described by a term that does not appear in
the novel but has emerged as one of the master tropes in contemporary discus-
sions of globalization, namely Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s notion of “deter-
ritorialization.” As Ursula K. Heise usefully summarizes, Deleuze and Guattari
have coined this term to philosophically “reconceptualize social, spatial, and
bodily structures outside the classifications, categorizations, and boundaries usu-
ally imposed on them” (51). In globalization theory, the concept has been vari-
ously adapted as a term describing the diminishing relevance of locality, changing
experiences of place, and the dissolution of all kinds of boundaries and classifica-
tions in general. Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, for instance, describe the
emerging Empire of global capitalism as “a decentered and deterritorializing
apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its
open, expanding frontiers” (xii). Arjun Appadurai, in turn, mainly associates
deterritorialization with the physical displacement of laboring populations and
other diasporic groups as part of a more general uprooting in “which money, com-
modities, and persons are involved in ceaselessly chasing each other around the
world” (38–39). In Appadurai’s view, it is this process of deterritorialization that
causes the socio-psychological costs of alienation, trauma, and compensatory fun-
damentalisms that mark the disjunctures between global flows and scapes of
media, capital, technology, and people today (29).
Deterritorialization as described by Appadurai plays an important role in both
novels. The Man without Illness not only devotes detailed attention to Sam Ambani’s
desire to appear a polyglot citizen of the world but also examines the quite dier-
ent form of cosmopolitanism that Asian migrant workers experience under the
deplorable living conditions on the Dubai construction site. As Ambani is told by
a project manager, the workers sleep in shifts since three of them have to share
one bed. “The workers are being treated just fine,” the manager explains; “with
the money they make here they can support an entire family in Bangladesh. So
they have nothing to complain about and besides they are some kind of animals
any way” (154).
In A Hologram for the King, the horrific living and working conditions of migrant
workers in Saudi Arabia are described in some detail as well. “We don’t have
unions. We have Filipinos,” is what Alan learns about workers’ rights in Saudi Ara-
bia (104). The novel, however, focuses primarily on the impact of the deterritorial-
ization of capital and labor on Alan Clay himself and, by extension, on the Ameri-
can economy in its current global context. Significantly, Clay’s very presence in
Saudi Arabia is described as the result of a deterritorialization of labor that com-
prises the outsourcing of manufacturing industries from the U.S. to other regions
of the globe. The broader relevance of this process for the narrative is clearly
marked when on his flight to Saudi Arabia Alan meets a drunken American fellow
passenger, who laments that “The Chinese were already making sneakers in Nige-
ria. Jack Welch [former CEO of GE] said manufacturing should be on a perpetual
barge, circling the globe for the cheapest conditions possible, and it seemed the
world had taken him at his word” (13).
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The negative consequences of this process for the U.S. economy manifest them-
selves in Alan’s life story: “born into manufacturing” as the son of a family of
metalware producers in Boston, Alan started his working career as a designer and
salesman for the Schwinn bicycle company in Chicago. Ironically, his involvement
in the decision to outsource manufacturing labor to Europe and China later costs
him his job when South Asian investors use their newly acquired technological
expertise to out-price Schwinn on the U.S. market, eventually forcing the com-
pany into bankruptcy. Subsequently, Clay gets “lost in worlds tangential to the
making of things” and repeatedly dreams of the glorious days in the past when he
was still involved in the actual production process (12–13):
In the morning he’d be at the West Side Factory, watching the bikes, hundreds of them, loaded
onto trucks, gleaming in the sun in a dozen ice cream colors. He’d get in his car, head downstate,
and in the afternoon he could be in Mattoon or Rantoul or Alton, checking on a dealership. He’d
see a family walk in, Mom and Dad getting their ten-year-old daughter a World Sport, the kid
touching the bike like it was a holy thing. Alan knew, and the retailer knew, and the family knew,
that that bike had been made by hand a few hundred miles north, by a dizzying array of workers,
most of them immigrants Germans, Italians, Swedes, Irish, plenty of Japanese and of course a
slew of Poles and that that bike would last more or less forever. (49–50)
On the one hand, this hyperbolically nostalgic vision of the past expresses a
quite conventional form of commodity fetishism: the labor that is invested in the
production of industrial goods is not fully acknowledged, and, in spite of the
“hands” that made it, the Schwinn bike appears to the consumers as a “holy
thing,” sent from heaven rather than put together on an assembly line. On the
other hand, Clay’s fantasy also evokes what Arjun Appadurai has termed “produc-
tion fetishism,” namely the illusion of local production in times of deterritorial-
ized capital and labor. The “idiom and spectacle of the local” (42) here all but
obscure the fact that it is immigrant workers who build the bikes that eventually
appear as a genuinely American product. Moreover, Clay’s memory also points
indirectly to the fact that Alan himself had never been involved in the actual manu-
facture of things. Indeed, when his teenage daughter Kit asks Alan whether he
had built a particularly beautiful Schwinn prototype himself, he answers, “Well, I
had it built. I helped design it” (50).
Alan Clay’s manufacturing fantasies closely follow or “shadow,” as James
Annesley might say contemporary narratives of the United States’ manufactur-
ing decline and, more specifically, American sociologist Richard Sennett’s analy-
ses of the psycho-social costs of the postindustrial economy. While Sennett’s analy-
ses do not address the phenomenon of globalization directly, his critique of
dissociated labor and the resulting uprooting of workers and employees is remark-
ably similar to the depiction of these processes in A Hologram for the King, con-
densed in the life stories of the main protagonists and the portrayal of Clay’s per-
sonal struggle with the consequences of deterritorialization.
In his 2008 essay “The Craftsman,” Sennett sets out to study from a social and
anthropological perspective the “basic human impulse” to do a job well for its
own sake. While he is cautious not to narrowly identify craftsmanship with manual
labor, Sennett nonetheless argues that an “intimate connection between hand
and head” is at the heart of every craft, from surgery to cooking to bricklaying to
playing an instrument (9). This element of bodily experience and “engaged mate-
rial consciousness” allegedly anchors human existence in tangible “material real-
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ity” (11). As a result, the rise of “dissociated labor” in what Sennett terms the “new
economy” of high technology, finance, and human services leads to social “demor-
alization” and disintegration since the “collective goal for good work becomes
hollow and empty” (44, 37; see also Sennett, Corrosion of Character).
Although it may be coincidental that the last name of Eggers’s protagonist is
identical to that of the material whose use in pottery and construction work Sen-
nett discusses extensively as “this most philosophical of materials” (“Craftsman”
125), Sennett’s concerns resonate throughout Eggers’s novel. Alan’s diculties
maintaining a meaningful identity and a sense of purpose in life closely recall
Sennett’s claim that the “succession of projects or tasks [in the new economy]
erodes belief that one is meant to do just one thing well” (“Craftsman” 265). Alan’s
new acquaintance Hanne, a forty-five-year-old European woman and representa-
tive of an international consulting firm at KAEC, seems by contrast to have settled
with such a deterritorialized biography, but not without a profound sense of loss
and regret. Visiting her at home, Clay notices that Hanne’s apartment closely
resembles her oce “it looked as if she had moved in hours before” and that
her cosmopolitan bravado and claim to enjoy “the utter lack of social responsibil-
ity” hide a deep loneliness (172–73). Alan’s younger co-workers Brad, Cayley,
and Rachel seem in turn to embody a next generation of new economy workers
who can’t even remember what has been lost. Day in and day out, each of them
mostly sits isolated in one corner of the huge tent at KAEC in which they have to
prepare the holographic projection for the King, with the temporary space of
the tent not only signifying the peripheral position of the American IT engineers
outside of the small complex of already erected buildings at KAEC, but also the
nomadic careers of the next generation of postindustrial professionals. Corre-
spondingly, the holographic projection they prepare functions as a signifier of the
virtuality of the overall project, which conspicuously lacks any form of the embod-
ied knowledge that Sennett associates with true craftsmanship.
The most insistent and symbolically charged representation of manufacturing
in A Hologram for the King, however, is Clay’s almost obsessive fascination with the
building of walls with his own hands. This motif appears, in various guises and
modulations, three times in the concluding chapters of the novel: first, when the
architecture of Yousef’s father’s house reminds Clay of his own eorts to build a
small stone wall around his garden in Duxbury, Massachusetts years ago; second,
when he interrupts a road trip in order to help two strangers build a stone wall at
the side of the street; and finally, when he tells his doctor and friend Zahra about
the shelter he and his father once built for themselves out of logs when hiking in
the woods of New Hampshire.
In the context of the novel’s engagement with issues of globalization and trans-
national economic relations this motif is of course hardly neutral: it combines an
emphatic notion of manufacturing in the concrete and material sense of doing
something with your own hands (Latin: manus) with a literal attempt at re-territo-
rialization: the comforting and reassuring erection of borders in a situation where
all boundaries, limits, and stable points of reference seem lost. When Alan thinks
of the stone wall he once built around his garden, he particularly remembers its
solidity and the sense of pre-modern domesticity it created: “The walls rose about
three feet and were utterly medieval in their homeliness . . . . He stood on [the
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4 What Is the What is based on the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee
from the civil war in Sudan. As Elizabeth Twitchell points out, the novel was generally “not met
with accusations of Orientalism or discursive imperialism but rather with widespread international
acclaim” (623). Other critics note that What Is the What avoids serving “Western desires for tales of
African ‘savagery’” (Bone 68) and seems quite aware of the neo-colonial pitfalls of contemporary
humanitarianism (Peek 116–18). For a more critical engagement with What Is the What in this
regard see Huehls.
wall] and it was sturdy as any floor in his home” (237). Likewise, when he sponta-
neously decides to help two strangers build a wall at the side of the road during his
trip to Yousef’s father’s house, he experiences the close relation between physical
coordination in manual labor and social cooperation that Sennett points to as
well (“Craftsman” 161–62). “Lending a hand” can create a community, even if
only temporary, illusory, and hindered by cultural and language barriers, as is the
case here: “They nodded to him, shook his hand and he was done” (248). Alan’s
story about the shelter that he and his father once built on a winter’s night in the
New Hampshire woods also points toward community and the reterritorializing
eects of the construction of walls: “It was surprisingly comfortable. Then we built
a wall around the shelter. Three feet, all around. To keep the wind out. . . . And I
have to say, when we were all settled in there, it was very warm” (306).
In the end, however, Clay’s desire for reterritorialization is not fulfilled. After
the failed presentation, he decides to stay in the desert in order to wait for the
second coming of a king whom he could not impress the first time around: “He
wasn’t being sent away, after all, and he couldn’t go home yet, not empty handed
like this. So he would stay. He had to. Otherwise who would be here when the
King came again?” (312). Although this ending, in spite of its strong religious over-
tones, does not necessarily imply an “apocalyptic vision” of globalization (Annes-
ley 3), it is not very optimistic either. It suggests the slow fading away of a solitary
and isolated man in a foreign desert, with no hope of ever coming “home” again.
Taken allegorically, it can be read as the inexorable eclipse of U.S. power in a new
world order of postindustrial, global capitalism now dominated by nations such as
the Gulf States and China.
At the same time, the novel also does not oer much in terms of a criticism of,
or an alternative to, its protagonist’s illusionary nostalgia for manufacturing and
localist notions of home. There are some hints that point to the compensatory
character of Clay’s fascination with manufacturing, wall-building, and the respon-
sibilities he assumes for his daughter, as a way to stabilize his sense of self (it later
turns out that she does not even want his help). However, his status as the only
focalizer does not leave much space for dierent views and the calibration of a
critical perspective from which the mild irony that is cast on his views and endeav-
ors would mix with a clearer acknowledgement of their regressive character. In
this regard, A Hologram for the King is remarkably dierent from earlier fictions of
globalization in Eggers’s oeuvre, in particular the novels You Shall Know Our Veloc-
ity (2002) and What Is the What (2006). Both these works have been credited with
questioning the limited perspective of their American characters and praised for
their openness to “worlds beyond our own” (Brooks 400), for example, the world
of Sudanese migrants to the U.S. in What Is the What. 4
The more Clay appears an innocent victim of the surreal and opaque machina-
tions of the economic power play in Saudi Arabia, the more his desire for reterri-
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torialization emerges as an emotionally compelling perspective in the novel.
Engaging the consequences of globalization from the limited perspective of its
American protagonist, A Hologram for the King presents a fiction of globalization
that itself does not get much further than expressing a sense of alienated nostalgia
for, and concerns about, the eclipse of U.S. power in a global economy. If there is
any hope at all, it does not reside in territorial fantasies, the assumption of fatherly
obligations, and desperate attempts to hold one’s own in a foreign desert.
The Illusion of Neutrality: Architecture and Globalization
in The Man without Illness
Arnon Grunberg’s novel The Man without Illness (De man zonder ziekte, 2012) has
a setting similar to Eggers’s narrative: the Middle Eastern desert. Although the
story begins in Switzerland, where the protagonist Sam Ambani was born and
raised, his work as an architect soon takes him to Baghdad and back, and finally to
Dubai, where this cross-over between a spy-novel and a modern tragedy ends with
the execution of the protagonist for espionage and murder.
Like Eggers, Grunberg employs space symbolically, here with a focus on archi-
tecture. The two Middle Eastern cities that Ambani visits represent concrete polit-
ical realities Baghdad, a postcolonial setting for decades of internal violence
and Western invasions, and Dubai, a locale of hyper-capitalism and frenetic proj-
ect development. In the novel, spatial tropes are specifically used to foreground
such issues as surveillance, connectivity, alterity, and the “war on terror.”
Significantly, the opening scene of The Man without Illness involves transporta-
tion from Europe to the Middle East. Samarendra Ambani, the young architect,
takes o for Iraq from a Swiss airport. He prefers to be called “Sam” and conceives
of himself as a true cosmopolitan, “a professional traveller, someone who has been
almost everywhere and feels at home almost anywhere” (7). Instead of being at
home anywhere, however, Sam will turn out to be at home nowhere. His identity is
defined only negatively: he is the man without disease unlike, for instance, his
younger sister Aida, who suers from a progressive muscle disorder. Sam, how-
ever, mistakes this detached existence for a flexible identity: “he could watch the
world from all perspectives, eortlessly taking the position of all his clients” (21).
The son of an Indian father and a Swiss mother, Sam’s potentially hybrid iden-
tity is undermined by his assimilation to a Western way of living and the assump-
tion that he is neutral like his home country “a Swiss amongst the Swiss” a
naïve standpoint for which he will suer later in the novel. Dierences between
Western and Middle Eastern cultures are ignored by this globalized Sam, in whose
eyes the wealthy Emirates are “ just like Switzerland” (139), and who considers
Dubai to be “an improved version of the West, the West 2.0 if you want” (142). His
naïve expectation that he will gain wealth and handle himself with ease in foreign
environments echoes fantasies of the world as “a bourgeois playing field, ready
and available for science, profit, and amusement,” as Mariano Siskind puts it (343).
Like the Jules Verne heroes that Siskind discusses, Sam starts o as a “bourgeois
conquérant” (Siskind 343) and imagines that Western culture will spread through-
out the world, starting with an opera house that he is to design in Baghdad. Obliv-
ious to the imperialist history of such civilizing missions, Sam assumes that this
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kind of “generous architecture” will automatically bring “freedom” to its users
(35), an expectation that at the same time recalls and mocks Immanuel Kant’s
claims for universal freedom and the notion of “world citizenship” (Beck 35), and
also echoes the discourse used to justify U.S. and European military operations in
the region.
The rich Iraqi at whose initiative the opera house will be built intends to bring
“true beauty” to the people in Baghdad (22), while also regarding this project as a
confirmation of the Western victory over the regime of Saddam Hussein and the
beginning of a “new Middle East” (23), an ideologically laden term introduced by
the Bush administration in 2006. While Ambani assumes that he will be able to
construct an opera house that is simply a gift to the local population and void of
any form of exploitation or ideology open, transparent, and ecologically sus-
tainable this opera house is in fact steeped in humanist and neo-colonial con-
notations. Indeed, Grunberg may be alluding here to the historical construction
of the opera house in Cairo in 1871, for the opening of which Verdi wrote his
opera Aida (the name of Sam’s sister), a key example, as Edward Said has argued,
of the way in which Western cultural practices are inseparable from issues of
power and domination (Said 134).
The hollowness and aggression of Western humanist ideals are expressed in the
description of the city of Baghdad. When Sam gets to the Iraqi capital, a city dom-
inated by the military, he sees only “walls and concrete barricades. More walls,
Baghdad is a city of walls” (39). In the heavily guarded “safe house” to which he is
taken, there are bullet-holes in the kitchen and the sound of explosions in the
vicinity. When his humanist patron turns out to have been brutally murdered by
his opponents, Sam’s guards disappear and he walks into the dusty streets of Bagh-
dad, feeling disoriented and out of place. After his papers are stolen and he is
arrested at a checkpoint, Sam is taken to prison and tortured in an “empty and
black” room without windows. The torture chamber, Sam realizes, has been
designed by an architect as well, an architect who was “only a servant” (89). Thus,
the discrepancy between the intentions and the possible eects of our actions is
defined in terms of architecture. Sam’s unmotivated detention is reminiscent of
the sudden arrest of Josef K. in Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925), and the leading
ocer of the goon squad’s repeated references to Sam as a “dog” (75) allude to its
last sentence: ‘“Wie ein Hund!’ sagte er, es war als sollte die Scham ihn überleben
(312). Moreover, the animal-like way that Sam is fed by the guards in the “dark,
sticky room” (89) recalls the cruelty with which family members attend to Gregor
Samsa in Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis, 1915).
While these literary intertexts might seem to give a certain transhistorical qual-
ity to the torturing scene, Grunberg also firmly embeds it in the contemporary
context of the “war on terror” and the abuses committed by American soldiers in
Abu Ghraib and later in Afghanistan. When his guards humiliate Sam by urinat-
ing over him, their doing so echoes the actions of soldiers urinating on the corpses
of Taliban fighters in a video posted anonymously on YouTube. The way Sam is
imprisoned without a trial also is similar to the proceedings at Guantanamo Bay
(one of the issues that Grunberg examines in his journalism). Thus, even though
Sam is captured and tortured by Iraqi soldiers, these references point to the fact
that they are far from the only ones operating in this manner. Any claim to a mor-
ally superior West is thoroughly deconstructed.
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The alliance of architecture, global capitalism, and political violence is first
established when we learn that Hamid Shakir Mahmoud, the sponsor of the opera
house project, is also one of the co-founders of a mysterious agency called the
“World Wide Design Consortium.” Located in London, this elusive and powerful
organization seems to stand for global capitalism itself. One of its agents, the spy
and “information broker” John Brady, describes the WWDC as an almost tran-
scendent entity:
The World Wide Design Consortium does not belong to anybody. It is not of human beings, at least
not individuals like you and me. It is bigger than us. It follows its own ways, it is subject to its own
laws and is obedient to rules that it creates itself. (131)
This remark echoes Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s description of the almost
sublime but nevertheless quite real character of the emerging “Empire” of global
capitalism (xiv-xvi). Nor is the WWDC only invested in plans to “design” and
shape the world by means of architecture and the management of consciousness
on a global scale; it is also involved in “risk management” and espionage
(Gr u nberg 131).
The Dubai project itself mirrors the entanglement of culture, architecture,
capitalism, and the military, since it involves the design of a giant library as part
of the curious campaign “Dubai saves the Book” (118) with an equally enormous
military bunker underneath. Thus, even though Sam still likes to think of himself
as only a “serving architect,” by accepting the job in Dubai, he follows in the foot-
steps of his world-famous master, Max Fehmer, whose vision of architectural
design is linked to global capitalism and the manipulation of consciousness on a
global scale. In Fehmer’s words, “Identity is like fast food [McDonald’s] in our
world. Architecture needs to be more than the tomato on the hamburger, archi-
tecture needs to be the kitchen in which the hamburger is being made. The archi-
tect influences the identity of the users of his buildings, his bridges and his towers”
(19). Talking to heads of states and billionaires at the World Economic Forum in
Davos, Fehmer even argues that it is architecture’s task to “shape the world,” and
that “In a sense every citizen belongs to the architect” (20).
The views of this fictive architect both echo and caricature the ideas of Rem
Koolhaas, whose construction of the China Central TV Headquarters Building
(completed in 2012) triggered a debate over the moral and political obligations of
architecture. Koolhaas himself argued that architecture can transcend the pur-
poses for which it is designed and that it is the architect’s task “to discover poten-
tials that the client did not or would not realize” (Fraioli 2012). According to Kool-
haas, global capitalism causes local identities to disappear from architecture:
at best, buildings retain some decorative local references if they are designed by
architects who make it their business “to be more contextual” than he consid-
ers his own work to be. In Koolhaas’s view, only a few cultures for example, the
Japanese resist this trend, while the Dutch were one of the first to give up local
identities: “The Dutch happily subsumed their identity into international modern-
ism and found international resonances and connections” (Fraioli), a statement
not unlike the claim made by Koolhaas’s fictional counterpart Fehmer that iden-
tity is like fast food.
Fehmer also seems implicated in the exertion of military power and the war on
terror. At a conference on the future of architecture, his views on the “consumption”
of space resonate with a lecture given by an Israeli army ocer, who suggests that
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5 In the acknowledgements of his novel Grunberg refers to a speech by Israeli army general Aviv
Kochavi explaining the spatial strategies that the Israeli Defense Force uses in guerilla warfare.
6 For the colonial history of this pattern see Edward Said’s classical analysis of the geographic
imagination of imperial power and exploitation in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (69–70; 100 –116).
the conventional perception of space in terms of houses, walls, and streets is
merely an “interpretation” that can be eectively changed for military purposes:
for instance, unexpectedly driving a tank through a wall can be an eective means
of countering guerilla warfare.5 Fehmer himself sees this military re-interpretation
of space as a version of his own postulate that “for the architects of the future
every border is relative” (189–90), a remark that can be read as an intertextual
reference to globalization discourses in which cultural, political, economic, and
legal borders are repeatedly said to be “no longer congruent” (Beck 19). Here,
military associations give the crossing of boundaries an aggressive and sinister
ring: deterritorializing borders may also mean destroying other people’s houses
and perhaps killing the inhabitants in the process.
Globalization is represented in Grunberg’s Man without Illness as a process in
which deterritorialized and deterritorializing capital and violence penetrate
everything, rendering any dream of neutrality and non-involvement a myth, or
worse, a deadly lie. Although on the surface Fehmer’s ideas contrast with Sam’s
belief in an architecture in the “service” of people, both facilitate the exercise of
military power, since Sam also designs the bunker beneath the library. This double
project can thus be seen as a metaphor for the impossibility of any “neutral” archi-
tecture, since the seemingly innocent library only serves as a cover-up for the mili-
tary space beneath.
Furthermore, although Sam conveniently assumes that it is possible to keep aes-
thetics and politics separated, after a drinking and gambling spree in the secluded
garden of a diplomat, he is arrested and tried, not for drinking in an Islamic state,
as he first assumes, but for espionage and murder. Loyal to his principles, Sam con-
tinues to work on his design for the library during his trial and even tells his guards
moments before his execution: “I am neutral and have always been. I worked for
the money. I have no ideology. Yes, beauty is my ideology” (220). He only admits to
a lack of love: his fellow humans have always remained “abstract” to him (220).
In the Bathroom: Topographies of Alterity and Spaces of Care
Both Alan Clay’s indefinitely extended stay in the Saudi desert and Sam Amba-
ni’s existential alienation are symbolic if not nostalgic expressions of the
demise of traditional center-periphery models of global power and Western hege-
mony. In the imaginative geographies of both texts their spatialized “diagram
of forces” (Moretti 97) the extraction of wealth from the East is expected to
provide financial support for female relatives of the male protagonists at home:
the tuition fee for Clay’s daughter Kit and the payment for the medical treatment
of Ambani’s sister Aida. 6
These plans, however, not only fail spectacularly but also seem a little absurd,
since the women do not actually want this help and have plans of their own: Alan
Clay’s daughter doesn’t want to return to college after the summer, but instead
intends to work at a food co-op; Sam Ambani’s sister has had enough of useless
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medical treatments and seems to prefer death to being subjected to another com-
plicated procedure. Absent these mistaken interpretations of their obligations,
there is no home to return to for the male protagonists, no stable center of mean-
ing that anchors their identities, and no position of political and economic domi-
nance that would ensure the necessity of their existence as patriarchal caretakers.
Their world is a Kafkaesque entanglement of confusing and alienating spaces in
which communication and understanding across political, social, and gender
boundaries seems ultimately impossible. The imaginations of globalization in
these novels thus starkly contrast more optimistic descriptions of globalization in
contemporary social and cultural theory such as Ulrich Beck’s vision of new ethical
forms of cosmopolitanism (20), Christian Moraru’s hope for a “new togetherness”
and profoundly relational “cosmodern” imaginary (5, 20), or the “noble vision of a
more just and compassionate global order” (ix) described by Manfred Steger.
Eggers’s and Grunberg’s novels also emphasize disjuncture as a general charac-
teristic of globalization and demonstrate that alienation and deterritorialization
aect dierent groups and individuals in dierent ways. In The Man without Illness
the existence of these “discrepant cosmopolitanisms” (Cliord 36) is represented
by the ways in which Sam Ambani’s world of business class travel and luxury apart-
ments is contrasted with the dehumanizing housing conditions of the migrant
workers in Dubai. The city’s shopping malls are hermetically sealed o from all
manifestations of poverty, inequality, and exploitation. The only spaces in which
the worlds of the rich and the poor intersect seem to be the hotel lobbies and bars
in which female prostitutes from Africa, Eastern Europe, and South East Asia
oer their services to wealthy clients.
In A Hologram for the King the fact that the Western middle-class protagonist and
the non-Western migrant workers at KAEC occupy dierent spaces and, in fact,
live in dierent worlds is illustrated by a “Kafkaesque” experience that Alan has
during a tour of the newly constructed condominium at KAEC. Stumbling upon a
hidden stairway that his guide has not shown him, Clay hears voices on the other side
of a fire door. He enters the room and suddenly finds himself in “a large raw space
full of men, some in their underclothes, some in red jumpsuits, all yelling.” In the
middle of the group two of the men fight over a broken cellphone. Agitated by the
events, some of the workers attack Clay, who escapes to a dierent part of the build-
ing, where he manages to close another fire door behind him: “When he looked up,
he found that he had leaped forward in time. It seemed to be an entirely dierent
building. The fifth floor was finished, modern” (206–07). This strange encounter
closely echoes a chapter of Kafka’s The Trial, entitled “Der Prügler,” in which Josef K.
opens a door to a small junk room in the courthouse and discovers two subaltern
guards who are about to be punished (108–17). As in Eggers’s novel, the visitor is
expected to settle the conflict but seems too confused and terrified to do so.
As this scene suggests, spatial imagery in A Hologram for the King is mostly used
to emphasize the impossibility of meaningful and equitable communication
across cultural and social boundaries. This impossibility becomes especially clear
during Clay and his driver Yousef’s trip to the castle belonging to Yousef’s father
in the mountains near Mecca. This building is represented as a place of generos-
ity, hospitality, and community, designed in such a way that it can accommodate
the “entire village” on festive occasions (230). In close contact with the local popu-
lation and with its natural environment, the castle seems almost Arcadian: at
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nighttime the visitors have dinner on a wide balcony and enjoy the magnificent
view of the village and the gentle breeze. This peaceful castle is thus unlike all the
other spaces in the novel: the virtual space of KAEC as well as the novel’s transi-
tory “non-places” (Marc Augé) such as the tent in which Alan’s co-workers prepare
the holographic presentation or the lonely and impersonal hotel rooms and apart-
ments that Alan and Hanne inhabit. As a materialization of communality and
dwelling, it represents a form of rooted cosmopolitanism that casts the non-West-
ern characters in the role of people who still know what a home is and what com-
munity really means. Indeed, it is the castle that excites Alan’s desire to build a
home and walls for himself.
While the positive depiction of the castle underscores the novel’s general nostal-
gia, the description of Clay’s stay there also demonstrates that this indigenous
space of belonging will be forever out of reach for Alan himself. This insight is
conveyed by the description of a nightly wolf hunt to which Yousef and Alan are
invited. Eggers’s carefully staged narration of this scene rewrites (post)colonial
accounts of hunting that include the hilarious tiger hunt episode in Hari Kunzru’s
The Impressionist (163–75), as well as George Orwell’s short story “Shooting an Ele-
phant” (1936), both of which depict the hunting party as an important moment in
the negotiation of mutual relationship of the colonizer and the colonized. Not
unlike Orwell’s narrator, Clay longs for the admiration and respect of his Arab
fellow hunters: “They would shake his hand, pound his chest with their palms.
They would all say that they knew it would be him” (261). He enjoys the feeling of
power that his hunter’s gaze down the valley suggests. However, in his eagerness to
shoot a wolf, Clay almost kills a shepherd boy and becomes, in turn, the object of
the gaze of others: “They were all standing, their guns at their side. They had all
seen Alan shoot his rifle at the shepherd boy, and no one seemed surprised” (262).
This sudden inversion of the gaze ends Alan’s trip to the mountains and, again,
decenters his position of authority. It also makes clear that in A Hologram for the
King the spaces of cultural, ethnic, and social others cannot be transformed into
relational spaces of mutual contact and meaningful exchange.
However, there is one area in which both novels do seem to answer to Christian
Moraru’s description of a new “cosmodern” desire “for solidarity across political,
ethnic, racial, religious, and other boundaries” and “caring for others” (5): the
personal and mostly non-verbal contacts that the male protagonists have with oth-
ers in intimate situations and that seem uncorrupted by the forces of expedience
and alienation. In A Hologram for the King, one of the few moments (other than his
interacting with Yousef) in which Alan seems to be able to relate to somebody in a
way that is not influenced by his sense of status and achievement occurs when he
hesitantly agrees to pleasure Hanne in her bathtub, a scene that also exposes
Hanne’s intense loneliness in her luxurious apartment at KAEC. After a rather
awkward sequence of events, Alan finds himself sitting with Hanne in her bathtub,
unable to get an erection when she reaches for his penis. Sensing her frustration,
he agrees to touch her and caresses her clitoris until she comes. Doing Hanne this
sexual favor seems to give Alan a glimpse of what an ethics of care could actually
mean: “Not to consume, not to watch, but to do something for someone else that
improved their life, even for a few minutes” (180).
The enclosed space of a bathroom also provides the setting for the most genuine
act of care in The Man without Illness. Because it makes it easier for Sam to wash his
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invalid sister Aida’s hair, the siblings have taken to showering together, and Sam
cherishes these “moments of uncomplicated intimacy” (14). His sister’s invalid
body doesn’t appear to him as human and “filthy”; it even seems to “ridicule”
notions of a normal and healthy body (13). Yet because Sam also conceives of his
sister’s immanent death as a “personal defeat” (57), he tries to earn money for an
expensive medical treatment for her in the U.S., even though it will most likely be
ineective. Like Alan Clay, Sam Ambani is unable to decouple his attempts to care
for others from his personal sense of pride and achievement.
Alan’s fondling of Hanna’s clitoris and Sam’s washing of Aida’s hair are gestures
of almost unintentional care. They resemble what Giorgio Agamben has described
in his Notes on Gesture as “means without end”: gestures as an expression of the
shared condition of “being-in-a-medium of human beings” (58) that is not
reduced to the content of communication. For Agamben, gestures may liberate
morality from means or ends: “What characterizes gesture is that in it nothing is
being produced or acted, but rather something is being endured and supported.
The gesture, in other words, opens the sphere of ethos as the more proper sphere
of that which is human” (57). When Sam washes his sister’s hair and Alan satisfies
Hanna they may want to be “useful” to others (Eggers 180), but they also tran-
scend the logic of exchange value and self-arming caretaking. In The Man with-
out Illness, in particular, this critique of instrumental reason and humanitarianism
also self-reflectively folds back onto the novel itself: the text does not suggest any
ethical program or maxim for political intervention, but simply points towards
gestures as an expression of “not being able to figure something out in language”
(Agamben 59).
The “sphere of ethos” in both novels is thus more or less confined to brief inti-
mate corporeal exchanges in bathrooms; outside of them, the male protagonists
fail to give heed to the needs of those closest to them and force their own ideas on
women: the need for health and education, rather than just being present in their
lives. They lack the ability for what Levinas calls “Fürsorge”: “Fürsorge as a
response to essential destitution, is a mode of access to the otherness of the Other.
It does justice to that dimension of height and of human distress, by which . . . the
relation is characterized” (33).
The essential fault of both protagonists is their inability to step out of their self-
imposed roles as caretakers of, and providers for, their families and, correspond-
ingly, their assumption of superiority in relation to their non-Western cultural
others in the context of their business activities in the Gulf region. Both failures
are actually two sides of the same coin: Alan’s assumption that getting the contract
for Reliant will be a “slam dunk” assignment (64) and Sam’s similarly haughty
ambitions to “build for the people” appear as expressions of the same highly gen-
dered center-periphery model of socio-economic relations, a model that makes it
impossible for the protagonists to stop their paternalizing fantasies of taking care
of their close relatives, even if these relatives do not want this care.
Thus, Grunberg’s Sam Ambani realizes just before being executed “that love-
lessness is the true reason for his death sentence” (220). Instead of respecting his
sister’s death wish, Sam follows his own fantasies of curing her, and it is precisely
these fantasies that bring him back to the Middle East and ultimately motivate
him to combine his architectural work with espionage activities. Similarly, the
motto of Eggers’s novel “It is not every day that we are needed,” a remark by
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Vladimir in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot seems like a para-textual warning sign for
Alan Clay not to get mired in self-imposed, illusionary responsibilities, which is, of
course, exactly what Alan does when he takes personal responsibility not only for
decisions concerning his daughter’s education but also for “the logic of globaliza-
tion” (Clare 9) and outsourcing manufacturing to China in particular. The nag-
ging questions of American business school students keep resonating in Alan’s
mind: “How did your suppliers become your competitors? . . . Teach a man to fish.
Now the Chinese know how to fish, and ninety-nine percent of all bicycles are
being made there, in one province” (Eggers 49). Thinking that anything is soley
your own mistake might be the ultimate self-aggrandizing delusion in times of a
global economy.
Conclusion
Space, ethics, and the failure of the Western man it is a quite similar constella-
tion of these three elements that makes A Hologram for the King and The Man without
Illness so curiously alike in their portrayal of globalization and remarkably dierent
from the more ambiguous or even positive stance that Annesley found in recent
American fictions dealing with globalization. While Eggers still leaves the possibil-
ity open that characters other than his middle-aged American protagonist might
be better able to adapt to the new global economy, Grunberg more or less depicts
globalization as a universal continuum of violence, terror, and misunderstanding.
The various references to Kafka and the Kafkaesque in both novels underscore
this gloomy image of globalization and seem to undermine any hope for the “criti-
cal and creative possibilities” within the system that Annesley is eager to detect
(12). For this very reason, however, the continuous invocation of the Kafkaesque in
both novels is also not without problems. It is not so much the potential of these
references to de-historicize very concrete political and socio-economic situations
that is troubling here; by situating their narratives in quite specific contexts both
novels more or less avoid this danger. Casting the protagonists in the role of Kaf-
kaesque heroes, however, raises questions concerning their agency and ability to
understand the situation in which they find themselves. Kafka’s protagonists often
seem to have little, if any, chance to gain insight into the power relations to which
they are subjected. Alan Clay, however, might very well be able to see global capital-
ism as the underlying power structure that produces his strange and disturbing
encounter with the migrant workers in the condominium. However, undergoing a
Kafkaesque version of the “sweatshop sublime” — the experience of the “inconceiv-
able magnitude and interdependence” of the global economy (Robbins 85) he
fails to acknowledge his own complicity with the system that exploits these workers.
Sam Ambani, by contrast, is eventually able to see his. Still, the constant invocation
of the Kafkaesque in relation to relatively powerful Western protagonists could be
regarded as an expression of the shock of the new: should this dark and totalizing
view of economic globalization simply be seen as the distressed reaction of a popu-
lation group that is not yet used to the experience of powerlessness and the inevita-
bility of disaster as a real possibility when acting on the world stage?
Indeed, the only characters that seem to find creative and positive answers to the
predicaments of globalization do that from a subaltern or marginal position. In A
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Hologram for the King it seems that the global future is not white and male at all but
belongs to people like Zahra Hakem, a beautiful Saudi doctor at the international
hospital in Jeddah who, unlike Alan, is represented as a true cosmopolitan: multilin-
gual, able to adapt to dierent environments and a loving mother to her children. In
comparison to Zahra, Alan feels “like a less necessary species” (287). Youssef also
seems to be able to connect to others when he plays music with his friend.
The fact that these moments of hope are exclusively connected to non-male or
non-Western characters, however, gives both novels a binary simplicity that is
partly produced by their spatial tropes, which emphasize spatial distinctions and
miscommunication. The rare gestures of care take place in the most private and
interior spaces, mostly without words and on the periphery of economic transac-
tions. Since these gestures of care or friendship seem to withdraw from any form of
articulated discourse or even meaning, their description may imply a critical eval-
uation of the possibility of culture’s critical stance that Annesley regards as a crucial
element of fictions of globalization. Indeed, both novels seem to indicate that
meaning in a globalized world can only be found in an impossible position outside
of the symbolic order, outside of language and economic reason.
Stephan Besser, University of Amsterdam
Yra van Dijk, Leiden University
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Comparative Literature
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