What was once a nasty secret became an open secret and is now common knowledge: The middle class is being squeezed, mostly downward, out of existence. Journalists and authors like Barbara Ehrenrich have exposed the shift from middle-income, salaried employment to minimum wage, hourly work experienced by so many. But what about the people who’ve been squeezed up? The people, who, while far from oligarchic wealth, have not only kept their salaried jobs, but have been promoted and blessed with bonuses? Two recent novels, Dave Eggers’s A Hologram for the King and John Lanchester’s Capital, inform us that life in the upper middle class has its tribulations, too, and both document the stresses of being, as one Capital character puts it, not rich, but part of the “struggling well-off.” From the point of view of these “struggling well-off,” both books take us on a tour through the brave new world of wealth and worth in the wake of the 2008 global financial collapse, a world where absurd economic inequality has rendered £1.6 million ($2.48 million) the price of a run-down London house with an outdated, dishwasher-less kitchen, yet it’s too expensive to pay factory workers $5 an hour.
A Hologram for the King tells the story of Alan Clay, an American business consultant of undeterminable purpose (even to himself). Clay finds himself in a tent in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert, awaiting an audience with King Abdullah, whom he wishes to dazzle with a presentation of a holographic teleconferencing system. Or rather, he wishes his “team” to dazzle the king because though Clay is supposedly “leading” the team, he has no technical expertise about the teleconferencing system and the team functions perfectly without him. To keep busy, Clay runs menial tasks like inquiring about the catering and air conditioning, exposing the arbitrary farce that is much of corporate hierarchy. Selling the teleconferencing system is merely the first step toward scoring a contract for the system’s parent company to handle all IT for the yet-to-be-built King Abdullah Economic City, known amusingly as KAEC (pronounced as “cake”). Clay’s secret is that though he lives in a large house in suburban Massachusetts and is the picture of privilege, he has somehow run out of money. Clay also has a daughter at a liberal arts college that Eggers keeps reminding us is very pricey (though someone should tell Eggers that it’s not like state school is a bargain anymore) and he needs the Saudi commission to pay her tuition and keep her enrolled. His more immediate problem is that day after day the king keeps not showing up.
A Hologram for the King draws on two theatrical classics, Waiting for Godot and Death of a Salesman, but Eggers writes about Clay in a wry, ironic voice that’s “very now,” as a Project Runway judge might say—distinctly of the 21st-century hipster era. Even the book cover is hipster-cool. Originally released in embossed hardback designed by the popular graphic designer Jessica Hische, it has the updated-antique aesthetic coveted by people who home brew and buy moustache wax. The narrative tone only gets serious when Clay takes an excursion with his driver, Yousef, deep into the Saudi hinterlands and has a terrifying brush with tragedy. Afterward comes an exchange that’s bold in its longing, acknowledgement of pain, and potential for grace: “It’s important to me that you’re my friend,” Clay tells Yousef, who replies, “Give me some time. I have to remember what I like about you.”
Otherwise, Clay is kind a hipster at heart; he’s aware of his life’s absurdity, that he’s really a leech filling up on the blood of globalization’s slave labor, but he’s entirely unmotivated to take meaningful action against it all. What he really wants to do—and failed once at doing—is establish a boutique bicycle brand, an expensive one focusing on quality and craftsmanship. But he shrugs at the realization that such a business is almost guaranteed to be unprofitable and thus doomed. Clay, today’s Willy Loman, feels disaffection, not indignation, at capitalism’s broken promises of comfort and an ethical code. The dreams of Loman are to an extent, Clay’s dreams (to sell things and provide for his family), but unlike Loman, Clay has no illusions that he’s not a useless sham. There are no existential wails of “I am not a dime a dozen!” in A Hologram for the King. Clay is a dime a dozen and he knows it.
Capital, Lanchester’s longer, more complex narrative, begins on a nondescript residential street in London, Pepys Road. A developer had built the homes on Pepys Road in the late 19th century for lower-middle-class clerical workers—London’s Bartlebys—willing to live in an unfashionable quarter in order to own a spacious house. By December 2007, when the novel opens, every home on Pepys Road is worth at least £1 million. Lanchester provides a concise example of the pre-2008 crash magical thinking that accompanies such a sudden mushrooming of wealth:
“The fashion was for people to install basements, at a cost usually starting at around £100,000 a time. But as more than one of the people digging out the foundations of their house liked to point out, although the basements cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, they also added at least that much to the value of the house, so looked at from a certain point of view—and because many of the new residents worked in the City of London, this was a popular point of view—the basement conversions were free.”
It’s just at this pre-crash moment that someone begins surreptitiously filming Pepys Road, and mailing postcards to each of the homes that state merely: “We want what you have.” The postcards introduce us to the Pepys Road’s denizens: Petunia Howe, an elderly woman and perhaps the only resident with a memory of Pepys Road’s less glamorous days; the Kamals, Pakistani immigrants who live above their convenience store; Freddy and Patrick Kamo, a Senegalese teenage soccer phenom playing in the Premier League and his father living in a house owned by Freddy’s team-employed minder; and the Younts, a British family with two young boys headed by their banker father. We also meet several people who frequent Pepys Road: Zbiegniew, a well-liked contractor from Poland who has converted many a Pepys Road basement and loft; Quentina Mkfesi, a Zimbabwean meter maid; Matya, the Younts’ Hungarian nanny; Howe’s grandson, Smitty, who’s an anonymous prank-conceptual artist (modeled closely after Banksy), among others.