Joan Didion began her career chronicling a certain ennui afflicting Californians coming up in the Vietnam era who were quickly losing faith in the society their parents created. She sympathized: "At some point between 1945 and 1967," Didion wrote in "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," her report on the San Francisco counterculture, "we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing." She found these "pathetically unequipped children," left to their own devices, trying to "create a community in a social vacuum."
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
The sense of a similar void animates Dave Eggers' new novel, "Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?" (This mouthful of a title is courtesy of the Old Testament.) Its angry young protagonist, Thomas, complains to a retired congressman who was injured in Vietnam that the older man's exhortation to "play by the rules," a pro forma line delivered at some campaign event, hasn't worked out very well for him. Such is his dissatisfaction that Thomas has kidnapped the congressman and a half-dozen others, holding them on a decommissioned military base on the California coast. He has a few things he'd like to get off his chest.
Eggers tends toward earnest parables, placing his fictional worlds inside a larger one that is identifiably our own. In his last novel, the techno-dystopian "The Circle," an all-encompassing social media company supplants earlier versions like Facebook and Twitter. "A Hologram for the King" (2012) was a contemplative, well-constructed story about a depressed American businessman killing time in the desert while he waits for an audience with the Saudi Arabian monarch.
Eggers has a knack for potent images of frustration: In "Hologram," the businessman joins a group of Saudis trying to shoot a wolf that has been attacking a herd of sheep. He fires at the first moving target, the shepherd; luckily he's so ineffective, so pathetic even in this, that he misses.
In "Fathers," likewise, Thomas learns that the story of the congressman's war heroism is rather more complicated than he had imagined: He lost his limbs not on some daring mission, the congressman explains, but "because I was eating my lunch near the wrong dip— who hadn't secured his grenades." But this is the rare vivid anecdote in Eggers' new book, which otherwise has all the allure of a college philosophy major cornering you at a party to give you his point-by-point rehash of Didion's "The White Album."
"Fathers" unfolds as Thomas abducts one character after another (an astronaut, his sixth-grade teacher, his mother) and subjects them to questions relating to his feeling that things are not as they should be — that the world is smaller, and has less to offer, than Thomas was led to believe. Who is to blame?
The novel's structure is unusual: nothing but dialogue, each new line of which is signified by an em dash (here as elsewhere, Eggers eschews quotation marks), and much of which consists of tendentious social critique rendered in cliche by Thomas and his interlocutors. On scapegoating: "Anyone can ruin anyone with an accusation." On Congressional priorities: "You guys fight over pennies for 'Sesame Street,' and then someone's backing up a truck to dump a trillion dollars in the desert." On capitalism: "You know how easy it is for a white man to make money in this country? It's like falling off a log." On mortality: "We're declining, don't you see that? The second we reach adulthood we begin dying."
The subjects of Thomas' passion are manifold, and rather than give the story over to any one of the issues that move him — the decommissioning of the space shuttle; the police-shooting incident that ended the life of a friend; Thomas' suspicion that he was sexually abused by his teacher — Eggers skips around haphazardly. As I neared the end of this short book I found myself wishing for some radical plot device to explain what had come before, revealing it to have been, maybe, a clever analogy: All the characters turn out to be extraterrestrials or roosting pigeons.
Instead Thomas, his madness escalating, kidnaps a woman he believes is meant for him, which he explains to her in his creepily sincere terms: "Don't you think it's just inherently wrong that we could find ourselves alone on a beach, and we're the same age, and not so far apart in terms of body type and overall attractiveness, and still we don't end up together?"
So soon after Elliot Rodger's California massacre, Eggers has produced something timely. There is a book to be written about angry young white men turning against a society that isn't giving them what they think they're owed — about their violent misunderstanding of the rules of the game. Certainly the world is rich with source material. Whatever lessons can be learned from such an awful circumstance, though, they're not here.
Sam Worley is a freelance writer and editor based in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
"Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?"
By Dave Eggers, Knopf/McSweeney's, 213 pages, $25.95Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun