Book Review: Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? – Dave Eggers

Ideology is a strange thing. It permeates every aspect of modern society, from the media to art to education. It is the basis for every major political action since the dawn of organized government, guiding decisions both personal and public. Sometimes it is pure, but more often is joined inseparably with less intellectual motivations: greed, racism, revenge. It is both obvious and obscure. Everyone sees it, but no one wants to talk about it.

This is the guiding premise behind Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?, the new novel by author Dave Eggers. The novel takes the form of a set of dialogues between a man named Thomas and several people whom he has kidnapped and held captive in an abandoned military base. A deeply troubled but seemingly intelligent young man, Thomas insists that he means no harm to anyone, and that he simply wishes to talk. He has questions, and he needs answers.

He begins with an astronaut, fresh off the national disappointment of the canceled Space Shuttle program. Thomas then takes a congressman, a teacher, a police officer, even his own mother. In each case, he begins a discussion that seems pointed less at any particular issue and more at some general feeling of dissatisfaction with American life in the 21st century. He claims to have questions, but they are nonspecific and generally misguided. What becomes clear in the early going is that though Thomas is intelligent, he has been steered wrong. The question then becomes: how? And who was at the wheel?

The form of the novel presents a particularly challenging issue for analysis. Completely devoid of unspoken narrative, the book’s entire worldview is filtered through a very limited set of lenses. Eggers combats this issue by building metaphors directly into his characters. The astronaut represents American expansionism, the Congressman America’s violent national past. Each captive is a stand-in for a particular issue that seems to be nagging at Eggers. While this is an interesting and sometimes effective way to tackle difficult questions, it tends to disservice the issues through the sin of underrepresentation. We quickly understand what Eggers means to say, but the resulting dialogue is never quite lucid enough to draw a meaningful conclusion.

But American exceptionalism is hardly a simple topic. Eggers uses his captives to break down the American ideal into its myriad components in an attempt to bring specificity to his metaphor. At times, this works. For instance, the most interesting moments of the novel occur when Thomas seems so frustrated by his own dissatisfaction that he can hardly articulate a real problem. He feels that something is wrong, and he knows he’s not alone. America is running an operating system with which Thomas is simply incompatible. From this sense of malaise comes a strange and intriguing discussion of mental illness, a topic that even the bravest of media mouthpieces feel uncomfortable tackling. For all its unspecific and sometimes even ignorant treatment of American politics, Your Fathers, Where Are They captures a sense of psychological unease that is uncommon in fiction today. Its politics are unconvincing, but Eggers’ take on the treatment of mental health in America is both enlightening and profoundly frustrating.

At its core, Your Fathers, Where Are They is a novel whose ideological scope is too grand for its own limited form. Honorable in premise but flawed in execution, it finds a great many questions to ask without answers to give. It opens the door, but doesn’t turn on the light. At times, it seems like Eggers is too dismayed by the ills of his world to press any further. You can almost see him throw his hands up in defeat. This sense of frustration is the most lucid aspect of the novel — one just wishes he’d picked up the pen again and taken it just a step further.

Colin Griffith

Colin Griffith is the Publishing Director for Tethered by Letters. He received his undergraduate degree in 2012 from Kenyon College, where he studied English with an emphasis in film. Focused on fiction and nonfiction alike, he’s especially fascinated by science fiction, horror, and cultural commentary. In addition to editing and publishing TBL’s quarterly journal, Colin writes fiction reviews for the TBL website.