If you dislike the em-dash -- the longer lines that sometimes appear around asides in sentences -- just looking at the pages of Dave Eggers' latest novel will bug you. (Sorry about the two in the previous sentence.)
The California-based writer's latest novel, the long-titled Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?, is written entirely in dialogue, and Eggers uses the em-dash instead of quotation marks to indicate a change in the speaker. It follows hot on the heels of 2013's The Circle, a conventionally structured novel (relatively speaking) in which Eggers tackles technology, social media, big corporations and more.
Your Fathers begins in "Building 52" where Kev, an astronaut, wakes up to discover he has been taken captive by Thomas, a man who says he's a former college acquaintance. To Thomas, Kev is "the one fulfilled promise" of American greatness; with NASA's space program decimated, however, Kev's chances of getting to space are slim to none.
Over the course of the novel, the reader learns Thomas has taken (and takes) a handful of other people hostage, all at an abandoned military base on the California coast. Each is housed in their own building on the base; they include a police officer, his mother, a former congressman/Vietnam vet, and one of Thomas's former sixth-grade teachers, among others.
Thomas interrogates each in turn, visiting some more than once, often threatening his captive with a stun gun if they don't co-operate. It gradually becomes clear he's trying to piece together why his childhood friend Don Bahn was shot and killed by police one night some years ago after a psychotic break.
Through his captives, Thomas gathers bits of the story of Don's final night. To say much more would be to risk spoiling the crux of the back-story, and how Thomas devolves to his deranged state of mind.
Your Fathers isn't long enough for the reader to get a good grasp on any of the characters except Thomas, the captor and constant throughout the book. At just over 200 pages and with the text being exclusively dialogue between Thomas and his captives, it's a book that can be read in one or two sittings, and certainly benefits from such a read.
Eggers typically writes exceptionally good dialogue; part of what made his 2000 memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius so gripping was the way he captured genuine inflection, especially between himself and younger brother Toph. Similarly, his masterful What Is the What (2006) and very good Zeitoun (2009) and A Hologram for the King (2012) emphasize authenticity of voice fleshed out by evocative, poignant third-person narration.
Without that third-person, omniscient narration, Eggers can't step in to relieve the descriptive pressure from the characters. The responsibility of fleshing out the world and its details, then, is thrust on to one either Thomas or one of his captives, and as a result there are a couple of clunky conversations per chapter.
In a way, Your Fathers feels like a writing exercise, or half a book -- as though if you were to ransack Eggers' office, you might find all the third-person omniscient narration that would make this book complete. It would be a godsend, allowing Eggers to scale back the bulkier, forced dialogue used to describe needed back-story, setting or plot developments.
Thematically, Your Fathers is a rumination on what makes good men turn bad in America, in a culture of violence and abuse that leads some people to the breaking point. With a steady stream of mass shootings and other tragedies in our daily news feed, Eggers tries to take the reader inside such an event to uncover why things happen the way they do.
And while the tension is there, doing it only through dialogue ends up being akin to taking it in on CNN via a TV with a busted picture tube, or reading a screenplay with no stage directions.
Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson is the Free Press literary editor, and tried to use as few em-dashes in this review as possible.