Note: I originally had a 1200+ word review of this book written and all set to go…and then it was deleted by WordPress without so much as an auto-save-you-very much. After much pulling of hair and yelling of threats in a neighborhood Starbucks, I attempted a rewrite. This is the aforementioned <shorter> re-write, which hopefully contains 1/100th of the brilliance that the first post had. (I humble myself, sometimes, you must understand…)
One of my favorite working authors, Dave Eggers has never been afraid to challenge old ideas of what it means to tell a story. With nine books to his credit, he plays with narrative structure as a child might play with LEGOs, tearing things down and building them up again according to his fashion. His nine books deal with constant plights of underdogs and strident individuals, bridging gaps between fiction and non-fiction, between the personal and impersonal. I’ve actually gotten to meet the man before, and though it was just a book signing, he cared enough to provide me with a memorable encounter that still sticks with me to this day. I’ve read pretty much everything he’s put out (with the exceptions being two of his most recent books, because he’s been loads more productive of late than I expected) and count many of his works among the best things I’ve ever read. I’m leading with this so that you know going in that I’m kind of an unabashed Dave Eggers fan.
Having said that, I’ve recently read his latest work, and I’ve come away feeling…less than impressed. Your Fathers, Where are They? and the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? comes in at a scant 200 pages, features nothing other than dialogue between two characters at a time, and some gripping character work. All of that’s fine and dandy if you’ve got something meaty in the text to sink your teeth into, but not if you preach it from a pedestal, a facetious nature of which Eggers falls victim to in his work from time to time.
The Not Great Stuff…
The basic premise concerns the struggle of a man named Thomas to make sense of the world around him. He’s kidnapped an astronaut (Kev), chained him to a pole in an abandoned military base, and is interviewing/interrogating him about topics ranging from government spending to destiny and dreams. This is all done out of some effort to make sense of the world for Thomas. Unfortunately, Kev’s answers only lead to more questions, and Thomas feels compelled to kidnap more and more people in order to obtain the truth.
The book obviously has the challenge of not having one word of description or action. Nothing much can happen when 1) there are only two characters in a given chapter/scene, and 2) one of them must remain chained to a pole. Because of this, the dialogue must carry the characters, and in the early going, this is hard. A conversation Thomas has with a veteran borders on the tedious, and by the end of it, you feel as though you’ve sat through an awkward one act play that would rather tell you how to feel than make you feel something.
…but it gets better!
The narrative starts to pick up when Thomas kidnaps a former teacher who may or may not have molested him and his childhood friend, a Vietnese-American boy named Don who was recently gunned down in a police stand-off. When we meet Thomas’s mother, we start to get even more insight into who Thomas is, why he feels compelled to do such things, and what his ultimate endgame might be.
As characters, we have no reason to believe or not believe anything anyone is telling us (particularly true during an excruciatingly dull exchange with a police officer) – we’re simply presented with the text, as is Thomas. Unfortunately, Thomas’s mental state causes him to doubt pretty much everything he’s told (yes, he is literally a doubting Thomas), which leads to many philosophical exchanges about why he’s stuck in the state that he is. “You don’t know what it’s like to be a man over thirty who’s never had anything happen to him,” he tells one character. For all of the power he exhibits by kidnapping others, Thomas might as well be chained to a pole himself, and as the gravity of his situation sets in, he’s just as trapped as everyone else – both literally and metaphorically.
And yet, Thomas remains surprisingly likable. During one exchange with Kev, he regales the astronaut with a tale of a girl he met on the beach. In spite of having been kidnapped, Kev is so drawn in by his kidnapper’s personality that he encourages Thomas to go after the girl. There’s something about Thomas that makes us want to root for him. Sadly, it comes about midway through the book, by which point the reader might already have tuned out caring about anything.
(A quick word about the title: Your Fathers, Where are They? and the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? references a Bible verse (Zechariah 1-5, for those inclined to keep track at home) where God warns his chosen people to pay homage to the past, lest they repeat it and become trapped in a vicious circle. Thomas is trying to make sense of his past, yet becomes trapped in a self-destructive loop of kidnapping. There, that work is done for you. You’re welcome, readers.)
In summary, the book is inventive enough to be interesting, and has several moments of brilliant character work. Unfortunately, it’s bogged down early on and for long stretches due to its need to seem important – again, the interrogation of the police officer screams “timely statement about police brutality” while failing to add much to the story itself. I was satisfied at the conclusion, but doubt that I’ll be visiting its pages again. Fortunately, there’s plenty of other Eggers titles to read in the meantime.
Images courtesy of McSweeneys.net and huckmagazine.com