This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on July 15, 2014.
Correction: The name of one character should be Congressman Dickinson, not Dickerson.
Dave Eggers delights in ripping apart the traditional elements of literature. He mines the news for ideas, blurs the lines between reality and fiction (What is the What, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), tackles unconventional subject matter (Zeitoun, the Maurice Sendak adaptation The Wild Things), and generally puts forth a quirky worldview. Basically, Eggers is the poster child for postmodern literature in this country.
Eggers’s new thriller, Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?, continues the author’s trend of embracing postmodernism with puppy-like gusto. This time, Eggers writes a thriller that abandons almost all the standard elements of a thriller. There are no internal thoughts, no expository passages and no descriptions of chases and abductions. Rather, the book is structured entirely as dialogue. Granted, this stunt-like formatting, where everything except the characters’ words is cast aside, has been done before. The king of this style is probably David Markson, whose emotionally devastating Wittgenstein’s Mistress was composed solely of a woman’s apocalyptic monologue. Nonetheless, Eggers excels at telling a nail-biter of a yarn without giving us any excess material. This is a thriller pared down only to what really matters, the battle of wills between a few people.
A thirty-something man named Thomas kidnaps an increasingly large number of people, stashes the hostages in an abandoned military base, and quizzes them about the decline of the American Dream. First, Thomas abducts an astronaut, Kev, then Congressman Dickerson, then a teacher named Mr. Hansen (who may or may not have abused Thomas’s best friend), then his own mother… As the number of hostages multiplies, Thomas becomes increasingly erratic, revealing that he was radicalized when his dreams about careers, society, and American exceptionalism never came true. Indeed, the end of the space program and the Iraq War symbolize, to both Thomas and author Eggers, America’s failure to maintain its myth of eternal progress and triumph. Thomas may sound like a product of unsatisfied white privilege, but interestingly Eggers never establishes Thomas’s ethnicity, making him a more universal figure.
Like Thomas, most of the other characters pay constant lip service to or live entirely within their dreams. The only exceptions are Congressman Dickerson and a young woman named Sara, both of whom are realists and see America for what it really is. These people know the American Dream has always been a lie. Ironically, their blunt assessments are not what Thomas wants to hear, even though Thomas demands an explanation for America’s waning glory. Thomas feels the American Dream has been damaged, yet he still fanatically believes the Dream is real, and he keeps railing about how things should be better.
In this way, Eggers masterfully shows how dreams can produce a false sense of entitlement – one of the key flaws in modern American society. When reality fails to live up to that sense of entitlement, the disappointment can inspire violence. With that said, Thomas makes some good points about how America doesn’t seem to be living up to its reputation anymore. The astronauts are grounded, people in positions of power can’t be trusted, and there’s no guarantee of a great job after college.
The book isn’t perfect. Despite the title being a Biblical allusion, the text certainly never reaches a Biblical level of intensity or emotion. The constant dialogue conceit sometimes feels a bit forced – since there are no expository passages, the dialogue has to work as both dialogue and exposition, making for some clunky sections. Additionally, the unpleasant chapter where Thomas interviews Mr. Hansen doesn’t fit with the rest of the book. Whereas other chapters feel essential to exploring Thomas’s psyche, the Hansen chapter doesn’t contribute to the main plot.
Still, the narrative is extremely compelling; this story could easily be converted into a decent play. Eggers’s writing style in this book, with its politically inspired anger, biting humor, and constant profanity, is reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson. The way that suburbia and failed dreams drive Thomas to violence also calls to mind George Saunders’s Tenth of December, which portrayed suburbanites driven to violence when reality failed to match their dreams.
Your Fathers / The Prophets is certainly a strange book, based on a stylistic gimmick, but it’s a thrilling story and, with its short length, can easily be read in 1-2 sittings.
The cover photo is archived from the original web layout. Source: