Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
So... I cheated on Gabriel Garcia Marquez by taking a break from 100 Years of Solitude to read Dave Eggers’ Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Exist?
The story kicks off immediately with tense dialogue between Thomas, our angry and snobby protagonist, and his unfortunate captive: Kev, an astronaut and Thomas' former schoolmate. Thomas’ tone is know-it-all and bluntly prying; Kev is bewildered and quite frankly disturbed. Such polarity generally sums up the nature of most interrogations conducted throughout this all-dialogue and immensely thought-provoking novel.
Among Thomas's mercilessly questioned (perhaps challenged is the better word) victims are:
1) Kev, of course: the trained astronaut who did everything right / attended MIT / is engaged but is denied his journey to space due to the cancellation of a space shuttle launch
2) An ex-congressman and war veteran who was tangentially involved in the aforementioned cancellation
3) Mr Hansen, the math teacher who technically sexually harassed Thomas and his friend Don Banh instead of teaching them math
4) Thomas's mother, who depended on drug and drink instead of raising her son (she, needless to say, is not at the prime of her physical health at the time of her capture)
5) The young cop who was involved in the police shooting that killed Don
6) The lady behind the hospital counter who was on duty when Don was brought in, and who denied visitor access to both Thomas and Don's mom
7) And finally, perhaps the most intriguing kidnap of all: that of Sara, the woman Thomas meets on the beach and considers to be 'the one'
All of these captives contribute to Thomas's dissatisfaction. All of them are certainly not so happy themselves. And all of them - including Thomas - represent the ways in which society is rippled by flaws that are too often left unquestioned.
"It's not a kidnap,” Thomas repeatedly insists. Rather, the purpose of his conquests can be described as a quest for pinpointing blame: blame for Kev’s crushed dream, blame for Don’s death, blame for the way he himself turned out misunderstood and unloved at age 35.
Should the congressman - the government - take responsibility for the dissolution of people’s aspirations? Should teachers, or parents, be accused for the way their students and children turn out? The magic of Eggers’ novel lies in his clear use of representation: the congressman is our window into the legislative system, the cop reflects the failures of a crippling police force, the nurse demonstrates the passivity of an ignorant bystander prey to the rules and regulations of society.
Indeed, all the characters in this novel are victim to a set of blindly followed guidelines and expectations laid out by unquestioned authorities. Kev, for example, tries to achieve what he set out to do through the standard approach: do well in high school, attend a prestigious grad school, etc. The congressman claims he wasn’t the only man responsible for the decommissioned shuttle - “others” were behind the steering wheel instead. The nurse doesn’t allow Don’s mother to see him for the last time because of some “standard procedure.” Finally, and most ridiculously of all, Mr Hansen attempts to talk his way out of his quite blatant pedophilia through getting all specific with the exact connotation of ‘harassment’ and what is and isn’t ‘legally condoned.’
It is ironically fitting that the congressman is the one who ‘mentors’ Thomas and even attempts to guide him to security. Even when shackled to a pole in God-knows-where, the congressman wears the politician’s shoes - he is the peoples’ man. The victims are only pulled out because the search team came for him.
How likable is Thomas as a protagonist? At the beginning, he’s irritating albeit interesting. As the novel goes on, we allow ourselves to give him some degree of sympathy, understanding and finally pity. After all, he is on a helpless one-man quest to clarify the past, understand the present and change the future. Yes, he is delusional and victim to the idea that things should turn out the way they should. His illusory ideas are best exemplified through his kidnap of Sara, expecting her to also sense the ‘love at first sight' moment he feels so strongly and escape with him to some forsaken island. Her inability to ‘understand,’ however, only further reinforces Thomas’s isolation.
Regardless of the crude means through which Thomas attempts to arrive at enlightenment, he is making a bold effort - that is why he is our protagonist.
On the structure of the novel: in Chinese class, we spoke of the main plot and subplots as bright and dark lines - 明線和暗線. Thomas’s interrogations take up, of course, the bulk of the 明線. Don’s story, however, is reserved for and progressively revealed through the 暗線. Such plot structure mirrors Don’s tragedy: just as his death was quickly covered up by the police, his story is swallowed up by the interactions between Thomas and his captives.
But Don’s death reveals the bigger issue that Thomas eventually sees. Whereas Thomas began his quest hoping to discover why the ‘perfect’ guy (Kev) didn’t see achieve his dreams, the more serious problem he deals with is finally why Don, a misguided kid, is abandoned and ultimately shot for no reason.
As a huge fan of setting description, I was initially hesitant to read an all-dialogue novel. Having read it, however, I realize that it works and indeed portrays human relationships in a way that leaves much to the readers’ imagination. Such an effect supports Eggers’ aim, I think, in urging readers to contemplate the types of people he portrays in the novel and the too-often unchallenged problems of society. In telling the whole story through speech, Eggers simplifies the scenarios and tells everything ‘as it is.' In this way, everything that is unsaid and hidden becomes more evident. I suppose readers will either love or hate this novel, depending on whether or not they can accept Eggers' style or appreciate his rather unique form of introspection.
I loved this novel because it is a treasure trove of questions. It’s one of those novels that 1) reminds me of the importance of reading-thinking not just reading 2) encourages me to read more contemporary novels!!
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