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Charles Carman

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?

A novel that points toward repentance.

Literature elaborates on the exclamations of human life. The cry of pain, of joy. The confession of love. The confession of murder. It has the ability to expand into hundreds of pages the consequences of phrases like, "Thank you." and "I love you," and "I have lived a good life," and "What's the point?"

Dave Eggers' latest novel, Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? (the title is biblical; see Zech. 1:5) seems (at first) to fill out the frustration with modern living expressed in the phrase, "Why's the world so messed up today?"

The form of the novel is straightforward, if unusual. There is only dialogue, nothing else. No description, no narrator. The tone lies somewhere between the theatric, with the feel of a script memorized and acted out, and a raw interview, with the customary informal digressions, conceptual cul-de-sacs, and unnecessary pads of thought. This uncut style gives the book a familiar rhythm, because life is somewhere between a stage and a raw conversation. But there's also a lack of momentum. There's no internal combustion in the characters. They speak like someone runs who is pushed forward, or chased by a train through a tunnel.

Each scene of dialogue, while gracefully crafted, has, paradoxically, no graciousness to it. The sentences are fluent, nervous. Each comes into existence and leaves because it must. Eggers isn't to blame. This isn't the fault of an editorial or artistic oversight. It's the fault of well-formed characters, whom Eggers has let speak as they will. Why they choose to speak so is the fault of the main character. He is the train in the tunnel.

Thomas, for the sake of finally having a "real" conversation with friends and acquaintances, decides to kidnap them. People won't say some things until they have to, he explains. Without some force, they'll beat around the bush. Forthrightness and punctuality aren't fostered without duress. So either they talk to him and go free, or he reveals a taser (though he never uses it; he's a moral man). So eventually the kidnapees talk because they wish to go free, and Thomas talks because he has a headache that he's sure some honest conversation will alleviate.

He first sits down with an astronaut he was friends with back in college. The astronaut halfheartedly surrenders to the part Thomas wants him to play, and tells the story of how he entered NASA with the dream of going to the moon. Naturally, Thomas gets angry. Livid, really. Not at the astronaut, but at the government for closing down missions to the moon. It means that the astronaut who worked so hard will never get to fulfill his lifelong goal. For Thomas, that's an unpardonable injustice.

But for himself, Thomas never had a dream, a "mission to the moon." He hasn't had such a sense of purpose. He asks another begrudging guest what he (Thomas), let alone the astronaut, is supposed to do with his life. "The government. The state. Anyone, I don't know. Why didn't you tell me what to do?" Later he and his guest try to find a goal:

–-You should have sent us all somewhere and given us a task.
-–But not to war.
-–No, I guess not.
-–So what, then?
-–Maybe build a canal.
-–You want to build a canal?
-–I don't know.

After several conversations——which often end often because Thomas finds another question he wants to ask, which means someone else to go kidnap——a theme begins to surface. Each exchange penetrates nowhere very deeply. Thomas is more interested in digging holes than finding something buried. Everyone's indulgent but not determined. And being forced to speak, surprisingly, hasn't invigorated anyone. The critique of society and culture and government, not to mention the character development, moves the reader only slightly. It might have moved more, but Thomas never waits for the conclusion, even though he quickly makes judgments. The conceit of the novel is intriguing (how will people speak when they must), and at times humorous. But the characters are not, on the whole, very insightful. Thomas is too impatient; the book is short. Things are too tense for revelation.

This makes it easy to add the novel to the long list of books that bemoan today's "cultural decline," all in varying degrees rearranging the same discontent, for the sake of not plagiarizing. Even Eggers' previous novel, The Circle, might have been similarly classified (many reviews did). And this would have been a sad way to leave things: another novel by a good writer that says in a somewhat different way what has been said for some time, namely, "Man, the world's messed up."

At its most philosophic, Your Fathers is Eggers's dramatization of Gilles Deleuze's Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, where Thomas is the schizophrenic who, because he lives outside the confines of the economic "herd," sees clearly the immediate danger that everyone lives within. He savors a cruel, liberating irony——that he did not kidnap his friends but freed them from their prison. When the officers arrive to take Thomas away, the kidnapped yell, "We're in here and we're safe." And Thomas can't help himself. "God," he says, "that sounds really horrible, doesn't it. Nothing in the world sounds worse than that, to be here and safe. Say it again. I don't think they heard you."

But the title points us to a different theme——a different question, a far more fruitful one. One of the kidnapped, a police officer, describes to Thomas an incident where an apparently unstable young man walked around his neighborhood with a steak knife, shouting apocalyptic things. This police officer and a ten-man SWAT team would later confront the young man in his backyard. The young man was heard "saying he was immortal, that he would cut our eyes out. That kind of thing … . He called us shades … . He also said he wrote the Bible. He quoted some line … Something about missing fathers." Which leads us to Zechariah 1:5-6):

Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever? But did not My words and My statutes, which I commanded My servants the prophets, overtake your fathers? Then they repented and said, 'As the Lord of hosts purposed to do to us in accordance with our ways and our deeds, so He has dealt with us.'

Now, what do the prophets have to do with contemporary life or literature or criticism or culture? The glory of poetic literature is to reawaken us to the gift of existence. It reminds the reader to be thankful. Nihilistic literature reverses the thankful into the moribund, life revealed as a dreadful cage. Drunk on the spirit of poetry, the reader's thoughts turn into doxologies. Under the hood of nihilism, the reader walks aimless and sullen. But the prophet does not evoke thankfulness or despair. The prophet is not trying to give his listeners an existential education. The prophet turns his audience to repentance.

Between poetry and meaninglessness, peace and war, is there any space in literature for poetic insight mingled with woeful petition? We can think of novels that have made us thankful for existence and others that depressed or unsettled us. When has a recent novel made its readership repentant? Thomas could not do it. He could only attain the zeal of a harbinger, who shouts that doom is at hand; but doom is always at hand. Thomas could not speak as the prophets do, revealing to us the the arms of forgiveness spreading.

It might be small; it doesn't take much to say it. But it's not an insignificant contribution to literature, this. Eggers' book shows by example a world where the prophets do not live forever, where literature has lost that middle response——repentance——between uplifting beauty and abysmal despair, amid novels (his own included) that do not or cannot expand on the human cry, "Have mercy on us."

Charles Carman is a staff writer at The Curator magazine. He married a poet from Minnesota. They regularly host meals with friends where they talk theology and literature over wine and homemade rosemary bread.

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