The latest novel from the machine that is Dave Eggers (currently rivalling Stephen King on the two books a year front) is, we are sorry to say, not quite up to the standard of either The Circle or A Hologram for the King, his last two outings. Which isn’t to say that (deep breath) Your Fathers, Where are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? is a bad book. And more to say that (deep breath) Your Fathers, Where are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? is not quite as good a book as his previous two. Expectations suitably lowered, however, there is much in (…deep breath) Your Fathers, Where are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? that is both ‘of interest’ and indicative of the way in which Eggers chooses to engage with the modern world.
Another thing to know up front – Eggers has written a novel composed solely in dialogue. If, like me, your reaction is largely ‘big whoop!’ because you’ve, you know, read books by Manuel Puig or Roddy Doyle or whatever, then you can start to read. If you haven’t read Puig or Doyle or whoever and you feel the need to run outside your house and then up and down your street knocking on doors, get that out of your system and then come back to us. Go on. Do it now. We’ll wait for you. (I like to imagine at this point, an excitable Eggers fan – we’ll call her Dawn – running up and down her street, knocking on doors, breathlessly sharing the fact that Eggers has written a novel in dialogue with her neighbours. I imagine several neighbours probably humour her – they know what Dawn’s like, she’s a bit daft but wouldn’t hurt a fly. Then I imagine a neighbour, the gruff unfriendly bloke at the end of the street, listening to what she has to say and then holding his finger up in the air while he retreats in the house, returning with a copy of Kiss of the Spider Woman – ‘knock yourself out, Dawn,’ he’ll say as he closes the door.) So. The novel’s in dialogue. Phew eh?
Things kick off with Thomas and Kev. Thomas is a young man who appears to have kidnapped Kev, an astronaut. The two men went to college together. Thomas wants Kev to understand why Thomas has kidnapped him. Kev, somewhat understandably, is a bit pissed off about being chloroformed and left handcuffed to some kind of post. Thomas says that all Kev has to do is answer a few questions, and answer them in a way that Thomas judges to be honest, and then he’ll let Kev go. The fact of Kev being an astronaut is central to their back and forth (and, arguably, the entire book): Thomas wants to know how Kev really feels about the American space programme largely grinding to a halt. What follows (you could argue) is an exploration of how an American deals with existing within an America that is declining. The glory days are behind us. Thomas longs for an America that pursued projects that inspired idealism.
A whole book in which two men talk, you might be asking? What is this? The Sunset Limited? (To answer that last question first: A little bit.)
But no. Thomas’ conversation with Kev leads Thomas to the conclusion that there are other people he needs to ask questions of. And so he kidnaps a congressman. And then he kidnaps one of his former teachers. And then he kidnaps a policeman. And then he kidnaps his moms. And then… Well, you get the picture there. The congressman gives Thomas (and implicitly Eggers) the opportunity to talk about the failure of the political machine. Thomas’ teacher gives Thomas (nee Eggers) the opportunity to explore the modern fascination with monsters and the ways in which the media titillate us with their crucifixion (whilst, at the same time, potentially suggesting that paedophiles maybe warrant a modicum of understanding too – dangerous fucking stuff, Dave). And so it goes. Thomas obviously has problems but he raises some significant and interesting points. A product of his environment in some senses, a product of his time, Thomas thrums with anxiety even as he rather fervently searches for answers to his predicament.
You might be thinking, well, this sounds alright. What’s the problem? I’ll tell you. It’s quite specific but it derails things a tad. Thomas has a friend called Don. Like Thomas, we learn Don may not have had all of his flowers arranged nicely in his attic. If you follow my drift. And, following an evening of somewhat wayward behaviour, Don was shot to death in his back garden. About two thirds of the way through the book, when Thomas kidnaps a policeman it just turns out that the policeman happened to be one of the policemen who killed Don. Now. it seems to me that Eggers could have avoided this unlikely coincidence in one of two ways. Either Thomas could have chased down one of the policemen involved relatively easily (using the internet or what have you). Or the policeman Thomas kidnaps wasn’t there but knew someone who was etc. A happy accident of this magnitude is like Toto yapping at the curtain. The thumb is sitting too heavily on the scales.
This aside, however, the novel is taut, intelligent and engaging. As its title goes some way to suggesting, if you were looking to place it within Eggers’ oeuvre, you’d probably nestle it alongside something like You Shall Know Our Velocity. By which we mean to say, not the worst, not the best. He’s trying – and that’s a good thing that warrants encouragement. It would be easy to churn out Eggers-lite but he stubbornly refuses to do that. He’s a writer who pushes at his own envelope. Anyone who does that will sometimes stray off the path, will sometimes drop the bat and run for first base without taking a swing. That’s fine. It’s admirable. We remain committed. We are fans. We like what he does. Even when what he does doesn’t quite hit all of our buttons.
Any Cop?: Title and super-coincidental plot mis-step aside, we would still suggest that Eggers’ fans should read this.