Dave Eggers must have decided he needed a challenge. His latest novel, Your Fathers, Where Are They, and the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? is both less ambitious than his last two efforts—The Circle and the superb A Hologram for the King (my review here)—but also more so: Your Fathers is composed entirely of dialogue.
Eschewing exposition, description, or detail, this political book—title taken from the Book of Zechariah, part of the prophet’s admonitions—thrusts the reader into the middle of a series of conversations. Thomas has decided that he must conduct a variety of “depositions,” which entail kidnapping first an old college friend who has become an astronaut, then a congressman, and then even people closer to him. At an abandoned military base, Thomas interrogates them, at least until he can answer questions that have been “piling up” and “strangling” him in the night. This fabular plot is part fantasy and part nightmare: After all, who wouldn’t want to be able to depose such people in their life? (Why didn’t that girl want to go to prom? What was really happening at work behind that closed-door meeting?) Conversely, what could be worse than having to answer for every wrong thing you ever said or did, or even the things you had no control over?
Thomas’ inquisition initially appears factual and political. Among other things, he inquires about what happened to people since he’s last seen them, what has happened to our space program and to our government, and what really transpired in that creepy math teacher’s house (the latter, resulting in an unexpected explanation, comprises the most thoughtful section of the book). But his questioning ultimately becomes existential; he eventually arrives at “Why am I the way that I am?” As you might expect, each of those deposed have different answers, from the evolutionary (“You were built for a different world. Like a predator without prey”) to the individualist (“You want to cede your life and decisions and consequences to forces outside of you, but that’s the coward’s way”). Eggers’ natural ear for dialogue carries most of these conversations, even if the imprisoned occasionally express strikingly nuanced and philosophical ideas for people chained to posts.
The plot stumbles, though, in the end. Thomas makes one abduction that isn’t internally logical as part of the story—it’s someone whom Thomas would realistically have captured right away, but who ends up only coincidentally being taken. This, coupled with a story that fails to lead anywhere significant, ruins the compelling initial 100 pages.
By the close of the novel, Thomas comes to some form of an answer to his questions, although it is not terribly satisfying: “Existing,” he says, “period—this is what drives men to irrational acts.” A short novel, Your Fathers may still be worth the small investment of time, but with a more finely tuned plot and with more political insightfulness, it could have much richer.