Dave Eggers’ ‘Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?’
Regular readers of this blog (all two and a half of you) know that I’m a big fan of Dave Eggers. I always have been. I read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius back before it was cool. So when I was recently faced with a crippling bout of indecision following my receipt of a gift card to my favorite local bookstore, it was with great relief that I spotted the recently released paperback edition of Eggers’ latest book, Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?
First thought first: I was going to give Eggers winner of all-time-best title creator, but his last book was called The Circle, and anyway, the title of Your Fathers was lifted from a verse in Zechariah from the Bible. But it’s still cool as hell. Secondly, this novel pulled me in from the very first page. I finished it in a day. It reads along quickly because it consists of nothing but dialogue between a man named Thomas and a series of people whom he has kidnapped. I don’t want to tell you anymore about the identity of the abductees because I think it adds so much to the tension and, oddly enough, the humor of the book, but be aware that many of the reviewers I’ve linked to have no such compunctions.
It has mixed reviews from some of the top publications. Phil Klay from the New York Times was less than impressed, particularly with the book’s discussion of veterans and US foreign policy. He says, “This book is political only in the degraded way that cable news is political — it’s uninterested in the nuances of policy because it’s already certain of which side it’s on. In that way, it’s a fitting document of our current level of political discourse.”
The Guardian seems to have received the book more favorably, with two separate reviews. Mark Lawson compares Eggers’ last three books to the works of Dickens and Zola insofar as they are “politically and polemically engaged,” and he likens the protagonist of Your Fathers, Thomas, to Holden Caulfield, which is a comparison that never would have occurred to me (not only because Holden Caulfield is 17 and Thomas is 34), but I think it’s appropriate. Societally, we are “growing up” at a later age, and much of the existential horror that Thomas is feeling mirrors Holden Caulfield’s. I think Thomas would like to think he is unique in his feelings, that he suffers from a distinctly post-everything malaise, but when you consider the time period from which the title of the novel is pulled, you may conclude that, indeed, there is nothing new under the sun (which, incidentally, is also a quote from the Bible).
About the dialogue format of the narrative, Lawson says:
There is a prejudice that dialogue fiction is either a gimmick or an unfilmed screenplay cannily repackaged. Eggers, though, has a precise reason for employing only voices. As the doubly interrogative title tips us off, Your Fathers … is a story about questions, with Thomas, who uses the legal term “depositions” for his interrogations, asking his hostages to explain what he views as anomalies in American life, including the cessation of the space programme, Congressional consent for recent wars, and failures in the professional conduct of teachers and police officers. It is typical of Eggers’s intelligence that the answers are often less easy and more unsettling than the hostage-taker expects.
Mark Athitakis, in his Washington Post review (wherein he compares Eggers to Steinbeck and Vonnegut for being “so willing to deploy his talents to such deliberately political ends”), adds this regarding the dialogue:
The novel’s opening banter is earnest and didactic, Eggers using his fiction to work through his public-policy concerns. And Thomas, who’s plainly disturbed, is a hard main character to get behind. His voice tends to shift between messianic pronunciamento (“I’m a moral man and I’m a principled man.”) and adolescent sarcasm. …
Yet…Thomas’s voice gains a third, more empathetic register that redeems the novel: a voice of rage and grief. “Your Fathers” acts out a kind of revenge fantasy that many people indulge when faced with the world’s unfairness: If only I could just make all these people sit down and listen, really listen, to me!
Now, what was interesting to me about what Athitakis calls “the world’s unfairness” is that, yes, Thomas certainly sees himself as a victim (he just doesn’t know of what or whom). But he’s a 34-year-old man. You can only play that card so long before it becomes unbearably tiresome. All the same, he makes some very valid points about just a few of the myriad ways that society has its priorities all out of order. As Thomas says, “I mean, you guys complain about not having money for schools, for health care, that everything’s broke and we have government shutdowns and every other goddamn thing, and then we look up and you’re spending 150 million on air-conditioning in Iraq. … You guys fight over pennies for Sesame Street, and then someone’s backing up a truck to dump a trillion dollars in the desert.”
As the other Guardian review puts it:
The other big challenge Eggers has set himself here is to manage the character of Thomas so that he walks the tightrope between truth seeker and psycho; if he falls one way and is too sane, the novel fails because we don’t believe he would actually kidnap these people; if he falls the other and is too crazy, then we don’t believe that Thomas’s pursuit of answers has any resonance wider than that of his own mini-manias. Again, for the most part, Eggers manages the balance well.
I agree. Thomas has kidnapped multiple people and has them chained up in an old decommisioned Army base. He’s clearly not exactly hinged, shall we say. Yet many things that he says make sense (to be clear: I do not agree with him on many issues), and we feel that the people he is interrogating are, for the most part, supposed to be in the wrong. There are a couple of conversations where this is not the case, but what I loved was that at a certain point in each interaction, the register changes just slightly, and for a moment, no matter how monstrous or wrong the other person may be at heart, for a moment what they are saying makes sense. Sometimes they get Thomas all wrapped up in his own brain, and he doesn’t know what to say. I thought it was really artfully done. I agree that “there’s a streak of wilful naivety in Eggers’s work that is often attractive and, yes, heartfelt but that can occasionally shade into facetiousness,” but I guess I’m just a sucker for his very distinct narrative voice.
Eggers himself says in a Q&A over at McSweeney’s, in reply to the question of whether there is any importance to the novel being set in the West:
Thomas definitely identifies with the West, and rightfully or not he’s internalized the mythology of the West, and feels he’s owed some of the glory of the frontier. So it’s important that he’s at the end of the country, and feels he has nowhere to go. He’s like the bear on the California flag. These are huge mammals that need a range of three hundred miles or so to thrive. Well, there aren’t three hundred miles anywhere anymore in California, so basically the bears have been driven to the sea. That’s where and what Thomas is, too—a suddenly unnecessary animal driven off the edge of the continent. …
The interviewer then asks: Thomas feels that the promises made to him as a son and an American have been broken.Who is ultimately responsible for the fulfillment of these promises? Eggers replies: “I don’t think that question is answerable in a tidy way. But I really don’t know that Thomas is asking for someone to give him that fulfillment. I think he recognizes that he’s of the species that needs to be inspired, that he needs that north light, that Polaris, to guide him, and that he’s lived a life of nights without stars.”
Eggers is still tinkering with a moral fiction that’s as flexible and subtle as any other kind, and at its worst it sounds like it’s being said by an angry op-ed columnist on a bender. Yet the dialogue-only structure and depth of feeling in “Your Fathers” are to its credit. You know what Eggers wants to say, he says it quickly, and he says it with a respectably righteous fury.
And, ultimately, he says it with a compassion that’s always been present in his work, even when he caked it in layers of snark. His “Grapes of Wrath” and “Slaughterhouse-Five” still elude him. But watching him work his way toward that level is one of the more fascinating literary projects going.
I think I’m with Athitakis. I can understand why this book might not strike the right notes with everyone, but I loved it. I found his narrative form fascinating and fresh; his treatment of heavy modern-day issues, perhaps not fair and balanced, but certainly affecting and very human; and his characterization funny and creative. There is something so vital in all of Eggers’ writing that makes me feel very rewarded and engaged as a reader. I’d recommend this book even to people who I know would disagree with much of its politics, simply because I think it would open a door for some very necessary conversations in this country.