A review of YOUR FATHERS, WHERE ARE THEY? AND THE PROPHETS, DO THEY LIVE FOREVER? (Dave Eggers)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
One of the most important claims of anti-foundationalism — what is usually called “postmodernism,” the making-fashionable of anti-foundationalism — is that nothing has a single, unified meaning and that systems that pronounce single, unified meanings are fascistic. Anti-foundationalist writing / film opens and multiplies meanings. No matter what you say about an anti-foundationalist work of art, you will be wrong: Another interpretation is always possible. We are all familiar with the rapid occlusions of commercial writing / film — once an alternative meaning appears, it is just as quickly shut out.
Dave Eggers is sometimes referred to, erroneously, as a “postmodern” writer. It is important to correct this misinterpretation. Dave Eggers is not a “postmodern” (read: anti-foundationalist) writer. He is a lazy, slovenly commercial writer who has an unattractive prose style.
Eggers’ most recent catastrophe, YOUR FATHERS, WHERE ARE THEY? AND THE PROPHETS, DO THEY LIVE FOREVER? (2014), could have been written in two hours. It is entirely composed of dialogue — an easy move for a lazy writer such as Eggers.
The dialogic novel is certainly nothing new. The dialogic form can be found in Evelyn Waugh’s VILE BODIES (1930), Henry Green’s NOTHING (1950), Charles Webb’s 1963 novel THE GRADUATE, and Natalie Sarraute’s satirical novel LES FRUITS D’OR (1964). John Fowles’ A MAGGOT (1985) is the gold standard of the novel of dialogue (though it is not entirely told in dialogic form). As flawed as Fowles’ novel might be, there has never been a stronger novel in this subgenre, as far as I know. And of course, there is Chapter Fifteen of Joyce’s ULYSSES (the so-called “Circe” or “Nighttown” episode). Sadly, most dialogue-driven novels these days are proto-screenplays. Since the 1960s, most commercial novels have been proto-screenplays, and this, I would argue, has led to the death of literature. (For reasons of economy, I cannot pursue this argument here.)
The title is taken from THE BOOK OF ZECHARIAH (1:5). The book’s learnedness ends there. In a style that owes nothing to Zechariah, Eggers will condemn American Society for not giving Young American Men what they are owed.
Eggers’ prophet is Thomas, a thirty-four-year-old American. His maleness, his age, and his Americanness are all important to understanding this novel as a cultural document. Why the name “Thomas”? We’re supposed to think of Thomas Paine (use contractions, or Eggers will get mad at you).
I write that Thomas is “Eggers’ prophet” because he has the same political convictions as Eggers: The money that the U.S. borrows from China should not be used to subsidize foreign wars, but instead should be used to finance space exploration, education, health care, and public television. Thomas whimpers:
“You guys fight over pennies for SESAME STREET, and then someone’s backing up a truck to dump a trillion dollars in the desert” . This is only one of the many jewels with which Eggers’ novel is bejeweled.
Eggers would like to persuade us that his prophet is a normal, likable young man, but his attempts at making Thomas seem likable and normal are nauseatingly ham-fisted. Thomas is “polite,” “nice,” and “friendly” and says repeatedly that he has no intention of killing anyone. Because Thomas tells us that he is a “principled” person (on page 7 and then again on page 84, in case we missed it), we are supposed to believe that Thomas is a principled person. There is very little logos in the novel, but there definitely is a great deal of ethos.
And a great deal of pathos. Unhappily, all of the pathos is artificial, particularly the pathos that is communicated when Thomas “falls in love” with a woman he sees strolling on a beach. The emotions in this book have the same relationship to real emotions that the fruit flavors of chewing gum have to real fruit.
Eggers would like to persuade us, then, that Thomas is a principled young man who kidnaps an Astronaut, a Congressman, an Overeducated Pederast Teacher, his own Mother, a Police Officer, a “Director of Patient Access,” and a Hot Woman; each of these characters is a lifeless stereotype. Such a rhetorical strategy would be difficult for even a serious and careful writer and because Eggers is neither (don’t say it with a long “I,” or Eggers will get mad at you), the outcome resembles a railway accident.
Thomas is an Angry Young White Man of the same pedigree as Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, James Holmes, and Jared Lee Loughner. And why is he angry? Because his “friend” Kev never got on the Space Shuttle. Because Thomas’s life didn’t turn out the way he wanted it to. Don’t we live in America? Aren’t Young American Men promised success and happiness? Thomas rails against the Congressman:
“You should have found some kind of purpose for me” .
And: “Why didn’t you tell me what to do?” [Ibid.].
Why, Daddy, why didn’t you tell me what to do? Why didn’t you “find a place” for me ? Isn’t there a safe and secure place in the world reserved specially for me? Why doesn’t the world need ME?
It is so sad that Thomas was promised success and happiness (by whom?) and that he never received either (say it with a long “E”) of these things. It is so sad that Kev never got on the Space Shuttle. Thomas unburdens himself to the Congressman: “That just seems like the worst kind of thing, to tell a generation or two that the finish line, that the requirements to get there are this and this and this, but then, just as we get there, you move the finish line” .
The world owes us success and happiness, doesn’t it? And when we don’t get it, we get real mad! Much of the novel is based on the mistaken idea that Young American Men are entitled to success and happiness. And Thomas represents all disenfranchised Young American Men. As Thomas says to the Congressman — his substitute “father” — at the close of the novel:
“There are millions more like me, too. Everyone I know is like me… [I]f there were some sort of plan for MEN like me, I think we could do a lot of good” [210; emphasis mine].
This is the worldview of a stunted, self-pitying, lachrymose adolescent. It is the worldview of Dave Eggers.
To return to the opening paragraphs of this review: Eggers, hardly an anti-foundationalist writer, thinks that life is essentially simple and that everything should have an unequivocal meaning: “You and I read the same books and hear the same sermons and we come away with different messages,” Thomas laments. “That has to be evidence of some serious problem, right?” .
It has to be!
Perhaps the novel would be endurable if it were well-written, but Dave Eggers is a mushhead with all of the style of a diseased hippopotamus. He draws from a stock of words that is available to most English-speaking humans. He writes familiar things in a familiar way. He has a problem with people who say “either” with a long “I,” but misuses the word “parameter” (twice, by my count).
The spiritlessness with which he writes is dispiriting. The prose is lenient. Serpentine sentences are superseded in favor of a simple syntax. Apparently, I am one of the few people alive who enjoys reading sentences that spread across the page like flourishing trees.
Despite its many flaws, the book will be praised for the same reason that audiences laugh while watching SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE: Most human beings are followers and do what they think they are expected to do.
Dr. Joseph Suglia