Well, somebody had to try it, so why not the former wunderkind of “staggering genius”? Dave Eggers’ ninth novel, “Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?” is written entirely in dialogue. This raises the question: Is this really a novel? We’ll get back to that later.
Mr. Eggers is a prolific writer and editor best known for his hyperbolic 2000 memoir “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” as well his magazines McSweeny’s and The Believer. In between writing books and funding nonprofits, he has co-written two screenplays, including a Maurice Sendak-approved adaptation of the beloved children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are.”
In some respects, “Your Fathers” can be read as a companion piece to the Sendak classic. Our protagonist, Thomas, is a man-child of 34 who has set out on an adventure that is both fantastical and horrifying. In a quest to answer his existential yearnings, Thomas sets into motion a wild rumpus from which he cannot return.
Thomas is looking for answers to explain the death of his friend Don, but also seeking the knowledge that explains his place in the world. He seeks the guidance of an astronaut, a congressman, a police officer, his mother and some other assorted characters.
To get those answers, Thomas abducts and secures these people one at a time in a former military compound along the Pacific coast. Each captive is held in a separate cell, and Thomas interacts with each in a methodical Q&A.
In her introduction to “The Gnostic Gospels,” Elaine Pagels gives the teacher Theodotus’ definition of what it means to be a Gnostic as someone who has come to understand “who we were, and what we have become, where we were.” But we’ll get back to this later.
One of the earliest translated Gnostic gospels was the Gospel of Thomas. Thomas is more mystical and Eastern in its interpretation of the life of Christ. The Gnostics were not as doctrinaire as their Orthodox brethren of early Christianity. Much like the revolutionary that they followed, the Gnostics were anti-authoritarian and capable of setting into motion a grand plan.
Mr. Eggers’ Thomas is a confused man who finds himself floundering in his life. Because the novel is written only in dialogue between Thomas and his captives, we gain very little insight to Thomas’ thought process. He is contradicted in his memories, mostly by his mother, and his behavior certainly shows a person not thinking his decisions through clearly. His friend Don also wasn’t thinking clearly when he waved a knife at the police and claimed to have written the Bible.
Mr. Eggers must be commended for attempting this audacious drama. The dialogue is snappy and sounds natural. Thomas is at times thoughtful and engaging while also being threatening and, clearly, teetering on the edge of sanity. The plan that Thomas has hatched works well enough without any plot twists, which is probably due to lack of exposition. (Even Hemingway put a few lines of narrative into the story “Hills Like White Elephants.”)
Is this a novel? No, it isn’t. It’s a play that explores some themes of alienation, betrayal and emasculation. But even plays have movement. Aside from a brief encounter on the beach, Thomas and his captives sit and talk.
Does Thomas come to an understanding of his place in the world? He does, but his quest turns from understanding man’s inhumanity against man to trying to find love. I suppose Mr. Eggers wanted to show that every person’s existential longing includes wanting to love and be loved, but sometimes a guy just wants to put on his wolf suit and make some noise.
What makes Thomas a not too sympathetic character, besides his treatment of his mother, is that a lot of his criticism of the world he inhabits has a solution. He grew up during two wars for which he could have served in the military and contributed something. He could have found his purpose as an Iraqi or Afghan veteran (probably both). Or he could have joined AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps, or something that allowed him to give back.
But I guess kidnapping people and holding a tribunal is something, too.
Nick Bonesso is a writer and producer, and blogs at www.lephilistine.com.