Dave Eggers 'Your Fathers' is (Very Well-Written) White Guy Existential Fiction, If You Like That Sort of Thing
Dave Eggers is not known for the shortest or most humble of titles — he rode to prominence on a novel called A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, after all. So the fact that his new book is pretentiously titled Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? (Knopf) is not surprising. The book itself lives up to the grandiose nature of its title, though maybe not in the ways that Eggers would want.
Your Fathers is very well written, certainly. A lesser author never could have pulled off the stylistic choice to use only dialogue throughout the whole book — not even a single "he said"-worth of narration ever occurs. Yet the story itself remains coherent and engaging throughout, probably helped by the fact that it consists of a mentally unstable man, Thomas, who abducts people and imprisons them in an abandoned military base in order to ask them questions. It's an interesting and unusual premise for a novel, and that we only have access to the dialogue highlights the conversations themselves as the central focus of the story.
Unfortunately, the dialogue, though it makes for a good read, creates more of a show of being deep than it actually is. Eggers is clearly trying to hit on some big issues here — his main character is in the midst of a very existential psychotic breakdown, one that leads him not only to kidnap people but to question them in a desperate search for answers. Thomas wants to know why the world seems to make no sense and to plum the depths of his own pain. For this purpose he kidnaps everyone from specific people from his past to a U.S. congressman to a random police officer, all the while trying to understand his own pain and the senselessness he sees around him.
Though Thomas is clearly mentally unstable, the reader is meant, on some level, to sympathize with his quest if not his methods. Thomas wants what we all want, the book seems to suggest. The book feels as though it wants to be grand in its scope, asking our world and our country the hard questions.
Which makes it frustrating that the issues Thomas, and by extension the novel, fret over most are things like an unhappy childhood and the de-funding of NASA. Thomas feels that the world has not lived up to its end of the bargain and has not given him the purpose or the inspiration it owes him. It is unsurprising that a white, straight male character written by a white straight man would think these are the most unfair things about the world, but that doesn't make it less frustrating.
And there lies the heart of the problem. For a book about getting to the heart of the world's ills, the novel excludes nearly all of the social issues you'd expect. Things like race and class and state violence come up, but they are treated as interesting side phenomenon to compliment the true problems and existential angst of the poor downtrodden white male protagonist.
Of course it's completely fine to have protagonists who are white and male and dealing with issues not related to massive structural inequality. At least I assume it is by the number of these protagonists that exist. However, choosing such a person to be the center of a book supposedly about asking the tough questions regarding the deep issues doesn't work here. And even though Thomas's skewed world view is often challenged by his unwilling conversational partners, the book still largely supports his quest on a metaphoric level. Yet the fundamental fact that Thomas feels the world owes him something, or that he has the right to demand answers from it proves he's more a part of the problems of the structural problems of the world than the victim of them.
If you're a fan of white guy existential fiction (and hey, no judgement; I used to be big into Twilight ), then Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? will be right up your alley, from the bold title to the melancholy ending. Eggers, again, is an excellent writer, and he makes the premise work remarkably well. Let's just not pretend it's the universal look at what's wrong with this country that it seems to think it is.