Unsettling short novel of dialogue tackles moral problem
Fiction: Your Fathers, Where are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?, Dave Eggers Penguin, pbk, 224 pages, €11.75
Is Dave Eggers one man or is he a literary brand with caffeinated employees buzzing about a San Francisco HQ, brainstorming Zeitgeist-grabbing themes and crafting prose by committee? You might wonder, as Eggers published this, his third novel in 18 months, except that the quality of his recent output is unmistakably the work of a singular talent. He might not proclaim his seriousness and ambition with the same intensity as some of his contemporaries, but with each tightly controlled book, Eggers' fiction becomes more prescient, moving and unsettling.
His previous two novels, A Hologram for the King and The Circle, read like the work of an author who knows exactly what he wants to say and how to say it. In Your Fathers, Where are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?, a short novel written in dialogue, Eggers again finds the perfect form for his subject matter. As works as different as William Gaddis's JR and Cormac McCarthy's The Sunset Limited have demonstrated, the novel in dialogue is ideal for discussing moral problems.
Eggers' biblical title is one of the few missteps in a book which presents conversations between Thomas, a 30-something kidnapper, and his victims, who he imprisons in a derelict military base.
"How long has it been since we did anything that inspired anyone?" Thomas asks Kev, an astronaut whom he envied in college. "We elected a black president," Kev replies.
To the congressman he abducts, Thomas complains about: "The worst kind of thing, to tell a generation or two that the finish line is here... but then, just as we get there, you move the finish line." The congressman responds with brute truths: "Not everyone can win the game." During these exchanges, Thomas yearns for "grand human projects that give us meaning", but the congressman, who lost limbs in Vietnam, dismisses his desire to be "part of some wonderful video game conflict with a clear moral objective."
The novel thrives on ambiguity. "Everything you did brought me to this place," Thomas berates his mother, which seems unfair, until we learn how her addictions shaped his childhood. Under interrogation, Thomas's former teacher admits feeling attracted to children but denies acting on his fantasies, calling his relationship with Thomas's dead friend Don "unacceptably complex". The teacher isn't trustworthy but he makes us think about paedophilia with more nuance than is usually permitted.
"Twelve guns against one knife," Thomas says when he captures one of the policemen who shot Don. The policeman's counter-narrative forces Thomas to consider the shooting from his perspective.
Eggers examines the cataclysms that occur when our lives veer from the narratives we construct for them. He's interested in the "throwaway people" who don't meet society's expectations. At his most menacing, the protagonist of this ethical, suspenseful novel sounds like Elliot Rodger, whose rampage in California in 2014 left six people dead. "I don't care what they did to you," a woman captive tells Thomas. "I care what you did to me. What you've done to all the others."
But Thomas also has plenty in common with those whom F Scott Fitzgerald described nearly a century ago: "A new generation… grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken." Even if all generations are lost generations, we need engaged, incendiary novels which ask: What now?