Controversy and Craft: On Dave Eggers, Part 4

by K.M. Zahrt

This is the fourth and final installment of this series on Dave Eggers.

Published June 17, 2014

Published June 17, 2014

In many ways, Dave Eggers’ latest novel, Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever (2014), seems to be a fictional response to the cultural paradox these controversies represent — the constant polarization of views on any creation or action, where the creator or actor must navigate critical waters between success and failure, between innovation and arrogance, between sentimental and sellout, between snark and smarm, and even between civil and criminal behaviors.

The protagonist of this book, Thomas, is in many ways, in postmodern fashion, the antagonist as well — a representation of our conflict-driven culture. The reader is at times compelled to both sympathize and even empathize with Thomas, but is also at other times compelled, like his subjects, to reject him, his actions, and his motivations. Thomas kidnaps several people, brings them to an abandoned army base, and demands that they answer his questions. At times the questions are targeted interrogations about specific events in his life, the life of his subjects, or the life of his friend, Don Banh, who was tragically killed in a stand-off with police officers. At other times the questions are large sweeping investigations into philosophical ideas.

In keeping with the original question of this series — What will be the controversy this time? — I combed the Internet looking for signs. What I’ve found thus far has been conflicting views on whether or not this book is any good, which pleases me. So far, the debate has not been about genre labeling theories or Eggers’ real-life subject who seems to have misrepresented himself or perhaps been misrepresented in a book (Part 1). It’s not about who owns which ideas and who can use them to write a book (Part 2). It’s not about the right to be critical and the right to be courteous (Part 3). All of these are meta-text.

This time the debate is about the book, as it should be. What’s its value? What’s the takeaway? And, answers to these questions fluctuate widely.

With more than 450 ratings and 120 reviews on Goodreads, the book averages 3.57 stars out of five. Of the five-star reviews, I’ve noticed a trend. Many of them make some reference to the form of the book — entirely written in dialog — as being formally daring. Even though the inside flap of the dust jacket tells its readers that the book is “formally daring,” I think that’s a stretch. First of all, dialog is one of the most common features of any novel, and many have long, dialog-only passages. I don’t think anyone should find it all that innovative. It’s certainly not daring. With his use of dialog, I don’t believe Eggers is trying to thumb his nose at the literary gods.

What I like about what Eggers is doing with this book and his recent books is that he’s exploring ideas — big, contemporary ideas. Mari Yamazaki comments in her review on Goodreads: “This novel by Dave Eggers completes a loose trilogy on the way we live now, and yet it could not be more different from A Hologram for the King or The Circle.” There’s something to that. Taken together, these three books represent an honorable achievement — a collection of commentary on “the way we live now,” as Yamazaki puts it. I can appreciate that in any work of fiction. Although, it’s significantly different, I would go so far as to add, because it’s not as good.

“The problem is,” another commenter, Renata, states in a three-star review, “I think over the last few years (as he enters middle-aged white dude status) Dave Eggers has been on some kind of quest to see if he can make the struggles of middle-class white dudes as interesting as like, refugees and tragic young orphans. Spoiler alert: HE CANNOT.” There’s something to that, too. This book, along with its companions A Hologram for the King and The Cirlce, simply does not have the action, adventure, drama, and cultural urgency of Eggers’ What is the What and Zeitoun.

Ultimately, Your Fathers represents, however, the logical response from Eggers as a writer and an artist, considering his history with controversy as we’ve reviewed in this series. Why wouldn’t Eggers feel like demanding answers to some difficult questions? And, what better form would there be in which to explore them than in fiction?

One of the people Thomas kidnaps is an old acquaintance, Kev, who completed training to be an astronaut just in time to see NASA funding cut and the space shuttle retired for good. Thomas says, “See, this bends my mind. Catcher on the baseball team, 4.0 MIT for engineering. Then you speak Urdu and become an astronaut with NASA. And now it’s defunded” (p.24). Thomas wants Kev to tell him how to feel about this, how to respond. He adds, “That just seems like the worst kind of thing, to tell a generation or two that the finish line is here, that the requirements to get there are this and this and this, but then, just as we get there, you move the finish line” (p. 34).

It would be appropriate in many ways for Eggers to feel like Kev, the astronaut. To write and publish some books that should be considered for inclusion in the American literary canon, others that have been culturally relevant, and others that have been socially important; to create an independent publishing house that functions as an avenue for countless writers and artists to find an audience; and to create non-profits that inspire youth and support those in need, only to be met time and time again with resistance, criticism, and controversy.

It seems logical, then, that Eggers’ career — and this series — would come to rest here, with this book. I’ll conclude with one of the more memorable passages that is an expression of sentiment that the astronaut, Eggers, and anyone who seeks to creatively and actively participate in our world will understand:
–What do you want to build? The world’s already built.
–So I just walk around in an already built world? That’s a joke.
–That’s the joke you live in. (p.210)

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