Monday, 28 March 2016

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers Review

On an abandoned military base on the Pacific coast, a troubled man called Thomas has kidnapped an astronaut and tied him up. What does Thomas want and why is he doing this? To have a chat about the good ol’ days. Except for Thomas, the conversation is just beginning - and he wants to get more people involved...

This is easily the best novel I’ve read all year. Dave Eggers’ Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? is an all-dialogue novel, meaning no omniscient narrator describing or setting things up, and everything the reader knows comes from the exchanges Thomas has with his prisoners. Maybe it’s partially the format, but I flew through this book in a day and I almost never do that with novels, even ones as short as this (just over 200 pages) - I inhaled this thing! 

A large part of why this novel was so excellent has to do with how well Eggers writes the individual voices. There are numerous characters in this and each one has their own distinct way of speaking - at no point are you ever confused about who’s talking (even though the chapters are labelled after the location each one is being held so you know who Thomas is having a conversation with). You also know exactly what the characters are like from the way they speak and interact with Thomas. It’s pitch-perfect execution Elmore Leonard would be proud of. 

Also, learning who Thomas is and why he’s doing what he’s doing unfolds beautifully. At first it seems like he’s just some nutjob who’s become obsessed with an astronaut but slowly you learn more about Thomas and his sad life. From there, new characters/hostages are introduced and you realise it’s a journey through the past via present dialogue, like a fucked up therapy session, to find out what’s really at the heart of Thomas’ problems. And, man, is it full of surprises. 

I’m not going to go into those surprises but each chapter unveils a new direction the story heads in where a detail that felt like an off-the-cuff mention turns out to be a key part of a larger story that becomes clearer the closer you get to the finale. The book has a driving, tense story even if you know what’s going to happen at the end - there’s only one way things are going to end for poor, crazy Thomas - but the journey is just so enthralling and you don’t know whether he’s going to kill the hostages or not. 

Eggers is a writer whose work is socially aware and this book is also a commentary on a number of contemporary issues (perhaps that’s why the book’s format is dialogue only, to help focus the reader on its topics?). Like the extreme way police forces deal with threats and violent American culture in general, the problems of boom and bust capitalism, the lack of help available for the mentally ill, and the seeming lack of a direction for the modern generation, no great cause to dedicate themselves to (coughclimatechangecough). 

In one way Thomas is representative of all the directionless, frustrated young people out there who don’t know what to do and desperately want someone to point them into a productive direction. In another way he’s a cautionary tale for those who choose to let the past dictate their future, who can’t help but keep looking backwards and want to paint themselves as helpless victims instead of making the effort to try something, anything, to make their lives have meaning and move them forwards. One character nails it: “Thomas, we all get what we work for. Maybe there’s some variation, but still.” - Thomas didn’t work for anything, instead allowing his disillusionment to consume him, and this is where he ended up. 

If you’re wondering what that title has to do with anything, it’s implied that they’re words that the character the book is really about - but who we never hear from directly for reasons that’ll be clear once you read it - says at a key scene that sets off this chain of events that leads Thomas to where he is now. The book is so artfully constructed, I’m in awe of Eggers’ abilities, really. He chose an ambitious approach for this story and effortlessly pulled it off. 

I will point out one minor critique in the cop character who happens to have a very pertinent role in the larger story and yet Thomas just randomly stumbled across him. It was a little too convenient that this cop was so very relevant to the narrative. Maybe you could make the case that this is taking place in a very small town with only so many cops, etc. but even if it’s a stretch, I’m willing to overlook it as I enjoyed the story so damn much. 

Your Fathers… is a complex, superbly-written masterpiece that shows Eggers’ heights as a skilful, gifted and enormously imaginative storyteller; it has depth and layers that are so impressive. Yet I don’t want to put people off from reading it by thinking this is an intimidating, exhaustive, unapproachable literary read - it’s not. First and foremost it’s a fast-paced and genuinely exciting thriller that also happens to have merit beyond being vastly entertaining. But entertaining it is and I couldn’t have been more engrossed reading it. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for an unusual but gripping and intense story.

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?

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