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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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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