Dave Eggers does not waste time exposing the rot in modern manufacturing in his latest novel, A Hologram for the King.
In a flashback on page 13, the main character Alan Clay, who failed as a bicycle manufacturer and has been bounced around various sales and consulting jobs, is sitting next to a drunken man on a flight to London, England from Boston. Eggers writes:
Alan had humored the man, and they had compared some thoughts about China, Korea, about making clothes in Vietnam, the rise and fall of the garment industry in Haiti, the price of a good room in Hyderabad. Alan had spent a few decades with bikes, then bounced around between a dozen or so other stints, consulting, helping companies compete through ruthless efficiency, robots, lean manufacturing, that kind of thing. And yet year by year, there was less work for a guy like him. People were done manufacturing on American soil. How could he or anyone argue for spending five to ten times what it cost in Asia? And when Asian wages rose to untenable levels -- $5 an hour, say – there was Africa. The Chinese were already making sneakers in Nigeria. Jack Welch 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. The man on the plane wailed in protest: It should matter where something was made!
Indeed, someone could tell the former chairman and CEO of General Electric, if a manufacturer could circle the universe in a spaceship, he would find even cheaper sources of labour and then threaten the inhabitants of one planet to accept his cost-cutting demands or risk losing their jobs to another planet in another galaxy.
It really should matter where things are made. But set against a backdrop of rampant globalization, where much of North American manufacturing has been outsourced and industrialists are pushing the gas pedal in a ruthless race to the bottom, the things that get made and the people whose lives depend on making them are regarded as unsubstantial as the elusive hologram technology that Alan and his team hope to sell to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. As elusive as the King himself, who keeps failing to show up to receive Alan's pitch on his technology and leaves the reader wondering if he'll ever arrive.
Alan, 54, is divorced and has a daughter, Kit, whom he adores. He wants to finance her post-secondary education and pay down his considerable debt. Selling this hologram technology, which would be used in "the world's next great economic city" -- King Abdullah Economic City, or KAEC -- is his last shot at creating a life of comfort and some security into his retirement years.
But it appears as foolish an errand as the first sight he sees in Saudi Arabia of a man sweeping the desert.
Eggers sets Clay -- his name is no mistake, for indeed he is a character who needs to be moulded -- off on an introspective journey too as he attempts to find himself and confesses at one point to one lover, "I feel like a pane of glass that needs to be shattered."
Alan Clay's America is also a fragile pane of glass. His father, a former union man and proud American, is disgusted by his son’s work and the extent of the outsourcing in his country, even to the point of importing Chinese steel to build a bridge, but he realizes that the Horatio Alger myth is just that. He wonders if there "ever was a time when a young American wanted to learn from an older American, or anything at all. Probably not. Americans are born knowing everything and nothing. Born moving quickly, or thinking they are."
And what of Canadians? Where do we fit in this race to the bottom?
No one has to tell most workers in manufacturing about the threat of outsourcing and job loss. The threat hovered the heads of CAW negotiators during the last set of contract negotiations with the Detroit 3 automakers, with Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne threatening to pull his operations out of Canada if the union did not match costs with UAW plants in the U.S. The move would have devastated the city of Windsor, Ontario, home of the minivan.
The threat became all-too-real when manufacturing giant Caterpillar shuttered its Electro-Motive plant in nearby London, Ontario on February 3, 2012 because workers would not agree to cuts of as much as 55 per cent -- this despite recording a $5 billion profit and aggressively expanding production of its locomotives outside Canada.
Meanwhile, the grisly reality of outsourcing creeps into the consciousness of Canadians in every news report that comes out of the third world. Tragedies like the deaths of workers at Bangladesh garment fire-trap factories that had been subcontracted to supply stores like Walmart or the series of Chinese worker suicides at a plant owned by Foxconn Technology Group, the main supplier of Apple Inc., represent the grim face of outsourcing.
These are stories that strain the sensibilities of Canadians and, evidently, Eggers himself.
Following his blockbuster memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and two well-received works of short fiction, the scope of Eggers work widened to embrace the world. What is the What, his 2006 masterpiece, was based on the life of Sudanese civil war refugee Valentino Achak Deng, one of the 'Lost Boys' who fled to the U.S. It was followed by Zeitoun, his 2009 non-fiction work of a Syrian-American owner of a painting and contracting company who chooses to ride out the storm of hurricane Katrina.
Eggers has written prolifically and in a variety of genres, including screenplays and a retelling of the Maurice Sendak children's classic Where the Wild Things Are. Although he carries the tag 'American' author, his work has a worldly wisdom and maturity and his writing style has moved from brash, youthful experimentation to a spare, Hemingwayesque kind of perfection.
A Hologram for the King offers some faint hope for Alan Clay's future and perhaps our own. In a world where the Occupy and Idle No More movements present models of peaceful change against injustice, where the upcoming merger of the CAW and CEP may breathe life back into the union movement -- about one in three Canadian workers are unionized, a steady decline over the last 30 years but still not as dire as the 97-year low 11.3 per cent in the U.S. -- things may be changing.
Eggers' art is not so pedantic as to lead the charge in this kind of change. But his humanity as a writer shines through works like A Hologram For The King and as a beacon in a very real world of turmoil and troubles.
Claudio D'Andrea has written for newspapers and magazines both in Ontario and B.C. for more than 25 years. He is based in Windsor, Ontario.