Imagine you’re a novelist who gambles. You lose a big bet, and the buddy you lost to decides to make your writing life incredibly difficult. He sets these restrictions for your next novel, and as a person of honor you hold yourself to them.
1. You have to write the whole thing in dialogue. Not one line of exposition, not even a “she said”—only dashes to indicate that the speaker has changed. You have to rig the dialogue so that it reveals who’s talking—and no clunky, soap-opera-style “So, my long-lost twin brother, how have you been these past fourteen years abroad?”
2. Obviously, there has to be a real story, and multidimensional characters, half a dozen minimum. It’s a novel, after all.
3. Something has to happen. You can’t just write a claustrophobic, static set piece like No Exit. Again, it’s a novel, not existentialist philosophy. Don’t bore your readers.
4. You have to set the whole story in one limited location.
5. Start with this premise: a man has kidnapped an astronaut and starts talking to him. Go.
Who in the world could write a decent novel under those limitations? Well, Dave Eggers could, and did. His newest book is darkly hilarious, profound, compelling, and richly ambiguous. It also has his longest title to date: Your Fathers, Where Are They? And Your Prophets, Do They Live Forever?
Describing this brilliant poststructuralist novel without spoiling its numerous enjoyable surprises is probably almost as difficult as writing the novel itself. Start with the title: it demands explanation, but I can’t give it here because the title refers—obliquely—to the novel’s central mystery. The mystery has to do with official responses to a troubled young man, and all the larger political forces thereby implicated. For all this novel’s oddity of form, a compelling puzzle not only lies beneath it but also gets satisfyingly solved.
I can say this much without unduly spoiling anyone: the astronaut is only the first of several characters to be kidnapped. The conversations all take place on an abandoned military base near Berkeley. The kidnapper chloroforms the astronaut because he urgently wants to talk to him: “I didn’t want to bring you here like this. I mean, I’d rather just grab a beer with you sometime, but you didn’t answer any of my letters and then I saw you were coming through town so–…” Why he so badly wants to talk to him goes back to the mystery again. Talking to the astronaut then makes the kidnapper realize he also wants to talk to this person, and this person, and so on—seven in all. Much of the suspense and dark humor lies in discovering who will be kidnapped next, and why.
Each character also brings new intriguing ambiguities to the story. One early kidnappee is an admittedly pedophilic former grade school teacher. Pretty loathsome, right? The kidnapper can barely restrain himself from beating the man at first. As they talk, though, information about exactly what the pedophile did and didn’t do comes out. Then he makes some well-articulated points about how most people jump to unwarranted conclusions, and how we’re so willing to completely write off whole large groups of people:
An accusation alone puts your entire character in doubt. This is how it works. An accusation is ninety percent of it. Anyone can ruin anyone with an accusation. And people are only too happy to be able to write someone off, to throw them into the pile of the depraved and subhuman. . . . . My point is that if there were only ten people on Earth, there’s no way that you would think I was dispensable. . . . I would still be useful. You’d talk to me, you’d work it out. But with so many people, no one person is worth so much. We can clear away wide swaths of people like they were weeds. And usually we do it based on suspicion, innuendo, paranoia. Whole classes of people. Including anyone vaguely associated with pedophilia. They don’t get fair trials, they’re sent away, and when they try to come back, they can’t even live. They live under bridges, in tents, huddled together.
Before you realize what’s happening, you find yourself feeling sympathy for the man. The sympathy, too, is tempered: Well, of course he’s trying to arouse sympathy, look what situation he’s in! This may be the most dramatic example of ambiguity in the novel, but something similar happens with each character. No one turns out to be quite what we expect when they first shake off their chloroform. There are multiple dimensions to everyone and every story.
The ending, too, is unexpected—and quoting it here won’t spoil a thing:
—We’re in here! Everyone’s safe.
—God, 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.
—We’re in here and we’re safe.
—Jesus Christ. That is the saddest thing I ever heard.
Dave Eggers, stunt writer, has created a(nother) heartbreaking work of staggering genius, under the strangest circumstances. Don’t miss it!