Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?
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