Sunday, July 27, 2014

Your Fathers, Where Are They? and the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? By Dave Eggers

“I can see you’re a fan of grand gestures,” says one character to his kidnapper in Dave Eggers’ new novel, which takes its title from the book of Zechariah. This is my first novel by Eggers, though I’ve obviously kept my eye on his career. The critical reaction to “Your Fathers” has been decidedly mixed, with some readers criticizing the book for its “preachiness” and others saying its arguments are flawed. I think some of these criticisms have more to do with how Eggers approached telling his story.

While the premise of the book sounds exciting, there is in fact, no real action. The “action” in this novel begins on Aug. 25, 2012, the same day as the death of Neil Armstrong, the American who, on July 20, 1969, was the first human being to set foot on the moon. The significance of this date is no accident.  

The main actor through the novel is Thomas – and that’s because everyone else is chained to posts. The story is told through a series of sometimes one-sided dialogues between Thomas, a mentally unbalanced 30-year-old man, and several people he has kidnapped and chained to pillars on the old Fort Ord property in Salinas, Calif. 

His first captive, Kev, is an astronaut who Thomas knew in school. Thomas sees a great injustice in the fact that Kev became an astronaut at the exact moment the Space Shuttle program was discontinued due to budget constraints. This sends him out on a quest to find someone responsible.
The quest leads him to kidnapping former Congressman Mac Dickinson, a legless Vietnam veteran; Mr. Hansen, a middle school teacher of Thomas’ undone by a submerged kind of pedophilia; Thomas’ recovering addict mother, and even a woman he meets at random on the beach.  It’s all rendered in pure dialogue, with the reader left to discern who is talking. There is no hint at tone or inflection, save when it is revealed through another character’s observation or reaction.  

Because of the storytelling strategy, the ideas are paramount. Gradually, it is revealed that what is really eating Thomas is the memory of his friend Don Banh, a child of Vietnamese parents who was shot dead in 2010 by police after he lunged at a group of them with a knife after behaving erratically. The title of the novel probably comes from this episode, when Don was supposedly shouting at police in apocalyptic tones, and is remembered as having said that he wrote the Bible. “He called us shades,” recalls a policeman who shot him. “He said he was the source of light, that he was the sun.”
Thomas’ obsession with Don is seemingly undercut when his mother informs us that Thomas didn’t always care so much for Don; that he, in fact, abandoned Don when Don’s behavior became too erratic. We accept this because, by this time, we are better acquainted with Thomas’ erratic behavior.  
It’s appropriate that Eggers has taken the words of a martyred Old Testament prophet for his work. In his seminal study “The Prophets,” Abraham Heschel wrote that what distinguished the prophets was their conception that justice is not an abstract concept but has practical implications at the ground level for humanity. “The prophet is a person who is not tolerant of wrongs done to others, who resents other people’s injuries.” 

Like the prophetic books, Eggers work is an extended dialogue. Where the prophets employed the Divine voice – “Thus saith the Lord” – Eggers has Thomas enumerate injustices that we are all aware of, but about which no one seems to doing anything. This is true not only of Thomas, but of Eggers’ audience. The prophetic vision encompasses the small, the mundane,things that we accept because they have become commonplace. We are invited to ask how the shooting of a young man anywhere can become commonplace.

But the prophet carries the divine office, given words from the Almighty, to show that God does not consider these things trivial, but offences worthy of retribution.  Through the words of Thomas, and occasionally his captives, Eggers gives us little glimpses at the leviathans of injustice we accept.

Thomas diagnoses, and then returns to, what he sees as a central problem – America’s lack of a defining, national task that illuminates what is best about the nation. Armstrong’s death, 40 years after America’s last lunar mission, merely underlines the distance we feel now from the last time our nation accomplished something of enduring, unifying pride. He feels a young man born out of time, denied his chance at something transcendent.

There is irony in this. Thomas brings his captives to an abandoned, iconic military base, closed in 1994 as part of America’s “peace dividend” – a casualty of the fact that we no longer needed to maintain a sophisticated network of installations following the end of the Cold War. The thinking at the time was that America could finally concentrate on purely domestic concerns.

But there are other social ills that get rehearsed in the pages – government spending, irresponsible bureaucracy, societal angst, police brutality, substance abuse, the War on Terror. The dissatisfaction of some readers seems to come, I think, because Eggers isn’t interesting in having his characters do anything but vent about these problems, and not in a way different than what you might hear in line at the coffee shop. When there is eloquence among his characters, it stands awkwardly out.

I saw one criticism that the characters marshal arguments that occasionally carry incorrect assumptions. But this criticism misses the point – part of what Eggers is diagnosing is the problems that come when a society clings to incomplete or incorrect information, with the arguer wondering why the world defies any attempts to put right its excessive wrongs. No one knows the whole story – they can only sense that it is wrong.  This too illustrates his overall theme, because it is also part of the overall problem.

Each of the characters riffs along the same lines as Thomas. Hansen, the teacher, argues there is no nuance in life anymore – people are only too happy to write someone off. “Each person we throw away fills our lungs with new air.” 

The book gets mildly implausible when Thomas kidnaps Frank, one of the policemen who shot Thomas’ friend Don.  Thomas initially acts as though he did not know Frank’s contribution to that episode, and we are never sure whether he is being facetious or otherwise. By kidnapping the cop, it allows Thomas to decry “this ability to stand between a human being and some small measure of justice and blame it on some regulation.” 

Thomas later observes: 

“Do you realize what a strange race of people we are? No one else expects to get their way like we do. Do you know the madness that this unleashes upon the world – that we expect to have our way every time we get some idea in our head?"

The irony bends back on itself when we remind ourselves that Thomas has kidnapped seven people basically because he is abstractly dissatisfied with the state of his country. Why is he doing this? His mother, chained like the rest, blames his aggrieved actions on Christianity, “ a whole religion based on accountability.” This seems an odd thing to throw in. Is Eggers, like others, suggesting the irrationality of belief, and giving his hero yet another evidence of mental illness? No – Thomas wants someone to take responsibility, not just for Don’s death, but for everything.  He’s over thirty, and his life means nothing, just like Don’s. The universe grinds on. 

How many times have you, looking over a newspaper, watching television, trolling Twitter, come across a news item like Don Banh’s death? For some of us, it inspires a sigh. For others, nothing. Some don’t even click on the story. Others never hear about it. But reality moves on. We know other stories will happen just like it. But it has not changed us. Taken that way, it’s easy to see Eggers’ strategy for the novel – nothing but talk. Because that is all our society does. We talk among ourselves. We talk on television and radio. We talk at each other. We talk through each other. We say much, understand little, listen hardly at all. And young men die, violently or otherwise. If the characters sound preachy, that’s the characters, not necessarily the write. Because of the way Eggers is telling the story, they have no choice but to state their arguments as arguments. (And frankly, I prefer Eggers’ strategy to, say, Jonathan Franzen. When his characters preach, I hear their creator’ssmugly-confident voice.

It’s easy to see the story’s progression. Thomas kidnaps Kev, perhaps not for any other reason than a brush with greatness, but he feels sorry for the man, and seeks out someone who may be responsible. From there, his perception of responsibility shifts to the Congressman, but Dickinson agrees with Thomas on some issues, sounds like a father figure, and doesn’t seem responsible either. So he moves to someone he knows is guilty of something – Hansen the teacher. But he feels he may have been taken in by Hansen as a boy because of his mother’s carelessness. Moving on from his mother, whom he has always blamed for everything, his next captive is Don’s cop. And then the clerk at the hospital where Don’s body was ordered cremated as a way to hush up the circumstances of his death. Now Thomas has diagnosed the problem. He needs a solution, but it is a personal one. He knows he can’t go back, so he wishes to escape with a girl he meets on the beach. All the while, he knows time is ticking. He retreats back to Dickinson, just as the end is coming. We don’t know if his end will be the same as Don’s.  

Dickinson gives him some advice. “Seek your truth…Exalt yourself, son.” Though these are the words of an old man trying to save himself, one is tempted to say that seeking his own truth is exactly what Thomas has been doing. He’s hardly been inactive. But Thomas isn’t a prophet, because his quest is generally a selfish one. A prophet knows it is impossible for us to exalt ourselves of our own volition. And the prophetic vision cares about society not because it is good, but because God cares about people, and He is good. If God cares about us, then we are worth saving. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

No comments:

Post a Comment