Every one of us has a handful—at least—of Nagging Questions That Seemingly Can’t Be Answered. Some of them are spiritual or existential, some of them concern the future or the past, some of them relate to half-remembered relationships or half-forgotten events. And like loose fillings, they just get in our grill and tantalize us. Our daily ability to cope with the frustration of their existence in some ways defines us, or at least describes us, as adults.
In Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?, McSweeney’s founder (and 2012 National Book Award finalist for A Hologram for the King) Dave Eggers breaks out of the blocks at record-setting pace, depositing the reader, his protagonist and a captive astronaut in an abandoned building without even so much as a how-de-do. And then things begin to get strange. Because Thomas, his rookie kidnapper-turned-inquisitor, doesn’t merely have baggage; he’s towing a whole fantasy freight train in the crazy-quilt mass of his misfiring synapses.
At first, Thomas merely wants to probe the mind of an astronaut acquaintance he once considered a hero. But riddles, like potato chips, are addictive, and Thomas can’t content himself to stop with the first one. Without giving away too much of the plot, Thomas actions begin to resemble the plate spinners one used to see at the circus or on “Ed Sullivan,” racing against time and gravity at the ragged edge of composure.
Eggers has written this slender novel entirely in dialogue, and not in the way one is used to seeing it. To wit, this interchange between Thomas and Kev (the astronaut):
—See, this bends my mind. Cornerback on the football team, 4.0. MIT for engineering. Then you speak Urdu and become an astronaut with NASA and now it’s defunded.
—It’s not defunded. The funding is going elsewhere.
—Into little robots. WALL-Es that putter around Mars.
—There’s real value to that.
A couple hundred pages of that may seem a bit like a five-mile sprint, but it’s actually a groove fairly easily settled into, and it nimbly underscores the urgency of the circumstances.
Leave it to Eggers to play up the situation’s moral ambiguity as well, much as he did in last year’s The Circle. Virtually every character in the book combines nobility and culpability, and while their grays may not present themselves in 50 shades, at least none of them are painted in black and white.
In terms of pacing, Your Fathers would seemingly advance itself as a terrific beach read, but the plot lends itself to a little overcast. That said, it deserves to be shortlisted for the summer, an outstanding travelling companion for a coast-to-coast flight . . . especially if you’re stuck in a middle seat.
Thane Tierney lives in Los Angeles, and never, ever flies cross-country without at least three books in his carry-on.