A military base. Photo: Getty
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Dave Eggers, the world’s most earnest kidnapper, chains up his readers

Claire Lowdon reviews Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers. 

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? 
Dave Eggers
Hamish Hamilton, 224pp, £14.99

Dave Eggers is two-faced. There is the formally inventive meta-hipster, as seen in the self-referential gymnastics of his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern (his journal, which sometimes comes in playful packages such as a deck of cards or a cigar box). Then there is the straight-up good guy, for whom writing is real-world action, leading to literacy projects and the rebuilding of New Orleans. In his sixth novel – Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? – these personas combine, with unhappy results.

The memoir and Eggers’s first novel (You Shall Know Our Velocity) destabilised their own narratives. What Is the What and Zeitoun played with the boundary between fiction and non-fiction, telling the true stories of Valentino Achak Deng and Abdulrahman Zeitoun in novel format. A Hologram for the King and The Circle marked a return to straightforward storytelling. “If there’s one thing I hope they’re teaching in creative writing classes, it’s that a story should tell a story,” announced Eggers in the NS in 2011 – a sentiment reminiscent of David Foster Wallace’s call for writers to treat “plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in US life with reverence and conviction”.

At first glance, Your Fathers seems more interesting than The Circle, which was in essence a discussion of the perils of technology given a pop-thriller presentation. (Eggers is big on big issues: A Hologram for the King dealt with the global economy, Zeitoun the US penal system and attitudes to immigration, and so on.) Your Fathers is composed entirely of dialogue – a format rarer and more ambitious than the epistolary novel. (See Nicholson Baker’s filthy, funny Vox for a perfect modern example of the genre.)

The structure of the new novel is simple. In the first chapter, we learn that the thirtysomething Thomas has kidnapped Kev, an astronaut, and brought him to an abandoned military base for interrogation. Why? Because he knew Kev in college and was impressed when Kev followed through on his dream to go on the Space Shuttle. Kev is the one person who has never disappointed Thomas. “A kept promise is like a white whale, man!” But the system has let Thomas down by decommissioning the shuttle. When Kev can’t explain why this has happened, Thomas kidnaps a retired congressman (also a Vietnam veteran, missing two legs): “We all think there must be someone very smart at the controls . . . But then it’s guys like you, who are just guys like me. No one has a fucking clue.” Then Thomas brings in a teacher who may or may not have abused him as a boy; his alcoholic mother; a policeman; a hospital worker; and finally Sara, a girl he fancies. The war budget, paedophilia, addiction, law enforcement, immigration, health care – Eggers is attempting, in just 224 generously spaced pages, to address the state of the nation.

The problem isn’t that these questions don’t belong in a novel but that in Your Fathers there is nothing outside of the questions. We are left with a limp, thematic skeleton, picked clean by the piranha of sincerity. When it’s not sounding unbearably teenage – “How long has it been since we did any one fucking thing that inspired anyone?” – the novel reads like a “questions for book clubs” worksheet: “Don’t you think that the vast majority of the chaos in this world is caused by a relatively small group of disappointed men?”

There is a lot of talk about ambiguity, particularly in the interviews with the possible paedophile. “There are degrees to everything”; “We categorise everything with such speed and finality that there’s never any room for nuance”. In this un-nuanced book about nuance, the central ambiguity hinges on the question of Thomas’s sanity. Is he delusional, turning to violence when things don’t go his way? Or is he just asking the questions no one else dares to ask? The quasi-complex answer is “a bit of both”.

But the answer doesn’t matter, because Thomas and his victims are just vehicles for Eggers’s polemic. The takeaway message is a reprise of the one found in A Hologram for the King – that people need good, honest work in order to feel human. “Everyone I knew would have turned out better, if we’d been part of some universal struggle, some cause greater than ourselves,” moans Thomas to the ex-congressman on page 36. By this point, the interrogation format already feels dangerously mimetic: the reader chained helpless while Eggers, the world’s most earnest kidnapper, paces the cell with the mad gleam of morality in his eyes. 

Claire Lowdon is assistant editor at Areté

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.


Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.


May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.


Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.


Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor

John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump