This isn’t my first encounter with an Eggers novel. I read The Circle back in 2014 and, given that that book has just been made into a film, it seemed about time that I picked up another of his titles.
And what a title. You would be forgiven for thinking Eggers was a student trying to make up the word count on a last-minute essay. But I digress.
Your Fathers…* has a rather unusual premise, presented in an unusual style. Featuring only dialogue, it relates a series of conversations between Thomas and each of the people he has captured. The first is an astronaut, whom he has handcuffed to a pole in a huge, abandoned military base on the Pacific coast. The astronaut wakes to find this apparent stranger, Thomas, asking him questions – questions which Thomas hopes will bring sense and clarity to his life. After that, he promises that he will let the astronaut go.
The structure of the book is certainly unique. It takes a while to get used to hearing nothing but two characters talk to one another, as if you are listening to them through the wall. Eggers definitely has a skill for creating character purely through dialogue: not only do you quickly recognise each person’s voice, but you also appreciate how what they say reflects who they are as individuals – their attitudes, their lifestyles. Like Thomas, I found myself analysing the captives’ answers, learning as much from what they didn’t say as what they did. I didn’t need a lot of backstory or exposition – with a few lines of dialogue, I knew exactly who these characters were.
It’s a shame, then, just how much exposition Eggers crams into his writing. There were far too many occasions when the characters are clearly speaking only for the reader’s benefit: describing the room they are in, their shared history, facts that one of them knows but the other says aloud for no apparent reason.
To make matters worse, a significant amount of the plot is driven purely by coincidence. Thomas starts talking about his friend Don because the astronaut accidentally calls his captor by that name. Surely there could have been a simpler way for him to come up in the conversation? This happens a few times, most notably towards the end of the narrative, when a random character turns out to be directly connected to Thomas’ backstory. Suffice it to say, it was all far too convenient for me. I don’t care if Thomas believes in destiny. I do not. Unlike Thomas, I know that there is a greater power setting everything in motion for him – namely, the author. I do not need to be reminded of his existence every time the plot lurches forward.
It’s disappointing, really, because at the heart of this novel lie some really thought-provoking themes. I loved Thomas as a character: for all his faults and complexities, he is sensitively portrayed, and you can’t help but empathise with him a little, even as you know that every action he is taking is utterly wrong. His motivation, too, is timely – certainly not what I expected going into the novel.
It’s just frustrating to be absorbed by such brilliant ideas, only for my disbelief to be shattered by an obvious plot device passed off as a character’s ‘destiny’. Your Fathers… is a good book, but it could have been that much better.