Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?
At a deserted military base on California’s Monterey Bay, a 34-year-old named Thomas is conducting some urgent “depositions”. Questions about his life and country have been strangling him at night. “Have you ever had that, where you’re lying there, and the questions are just these asps wrapping themselves around your throat?” he asks Kev, the first of several abductees Thomas installs around the base.
Thomas hasn’t lived a lucky life. His mother mocks his inability to keep a job, and one involving subplot unpacks the death of a friend to police violence. The people he kidnaps represent the systems he perceives to have failed him; an astronaut, Kev stands for America’s depreciating dreams.
Composed entirely of dialogue, the book is both lively and tight. Despite the unsparing bleakness of the plot, Eggers can’t help but be funny. When a kidnapped cop won’t tell Thomas if he’s ever worn a moustache, Thomas asks, “Is that classified information? Cop facial hair choices are classified?”
Still, some conversations lag. As a rule, those with people from Thomas’s past lack the tension of those with strangers, who both empathise with him and would prefer he not have abducted them and chained them to a post. Perhaps Eggers’ intent is to give Thomas some humanity – if so, he needn’t try so hard. Our underlying goodness is always the real theme of his work. The best dialogues are the ones in which the interlocutors supply opportunities for Thomas to prove his moral worth.
Thomas is not just a victim, but a menacing lunatic, sometimes compassionate, sometimes selfish and hopeless. It’s very tough to like him. Does his escalating craziness make him less human, his fears and hopes less real? Does his self-interest negate his arguments or his needs? In a novel this spare, there’s more emphasis than usual on the reader’s role in answering these questions.
Eggers is known for taking big swings that effect real change in both literature and politics. There are few smarter story collections than How We Are Hungry; there are few more restrained (or important) works of narrative nonfiction than Zeitoun. This book is unlikely to reconfigure as many quadrants of the culture as we’re used to from Eggers. Should we permit one of our best authors a sharp, flawed, unfinished-feeling book? We mightn’t, but perhaps we should. CR
Hamish Hamilton, 224pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 21, 2014 as "Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?, Dave Eggers ". Subscribe here.