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Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?

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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

From Dave Eggers, best-selling author of The Circle, a tightly controlled, emotionally searching novel. Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? is the formally daring, brilliantly executed story of one man struggling to make sense of his country, seeking answers the only way he knows how.
 
In a barracks on an abandoned military base, miles from the nearest road, Thomas watches as the man he has brought wakes up. Kev, a NASA astronaut, doesn't recognize his captor, though Thomas remembers him. Kev cries for help. He pulls at his chain. But the ocean is close by, and nobody can hear him over the waves and wind. Thomas apologizes. He didn't want to have to resort to this. But they really needed to have a conversation, and Kev didn't answer his messages. And now, if Kev can just stop yelling, Thomas has a few questions.
 

Excerpt

BUILDING 52
 
—I did it. You’re really here. An astronaut. Jesus.
 
—Who’s that?
 
—You probably have a headache. From the chloroform.
 
—What? Where am I? Where is this place? Who the fuck are you?
 
—You don’t recognize me?
 
—What? No. What is this?
 
—That? It’s a chain. It’s attached to that post. Don’t pull on it.
 
—Holy shit. Holy shit.
 
—I said don’t pull on it. And I have to tell you right away how sorry I am that you’re here under these circumstances.
 
—Who are you?
 
—We know each other, Kev. From way back. And 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— Really, don’t yank on that. You’ll mess up your leg.
 
—Why the fuck am I here?
 
—You’re here because I brought you here.
 
—You did this? You have me chained to a post?
 
—Isn’t that thing great? I don’t know if you’d call it a post. Whatever it is, it’s incredibly strong. This place came with them. This was a military base...
Dave Eggers

About Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers - Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?

Photo © Michelle Quint

Dave Eggers grew up near Chicago and graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the founder of McSweeney’s, an independent publishing house in San Francisco that produces books, a quarterly journal of new writing (McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern), and a monthly magazine, The Believer. McSweeney’s publishes Voice of Witness, a nonprofit book series that uses oral history to illuminate human rights crises around the world. In 2002, he cofounded 826 Valencia, a nonprofit youth writing and tutoring center in San Francisco’s Mission District. Sister centers have since opened in seven other American cities under the umbrella of 826 National, and like-minded centers have opened in Dublin, London, Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Birmingham, Alabama, among other locations. His work has been nominated for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and has won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, France’s Prix Médicis, Germany’s Albatross Prize, the National Magazine Award, and the American Book Award. Eggers lives in Northern California with his family.  
 
Praise

Praise

“Politically and polemically engaged in the tradition of Dickens and Zola . . . another novel located in a frightened, divided, deceitful and possibly disintegrating America . . . Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? is a hostage drama of sorts. It opens with Thomas, the disaffected protagonist, explaining to Kev Paciorek, a Nasa astronaut who just missed out on the space shuttle when funding was withdrawn, why he has been kidnapped and tied to a post in Building 52, an empty hangar in Fort Ord, an abandoned military base on the California coast . . . Many skilfully delayed revelations . . .  privately and publicly astute, confirming that the writer's joke about genius in his debut title was not entirely misplaced.” -- Mark Lawson, The Guardian
 
"Another startling leap into new territory . . . Here is a tale as tightly wound as an alarm clock. Told entirely in dialogue, it takes place on a deserted military base on the California coast. Thomas, its hero, has kidnapped an astronaut, Kev, and chained him to a post. . . Eggers has always been as elastic writer, but in Your Fathers he puts his language to the ultimate test. Thomas’ tone yaws from sincerity to creepy insinuation, capturing the abrupt shifts and feedback loops of delirium. Happily, however, Eggers never pushes his young hero over the edge. Thomas has done something at best ill-advised, at worse criminal. Thomas merely wants what we all want; an accounting. In this gripping and saddening book, Eggers has shown what happens when young men like him don’t get answers." -- John Freeman, Toronto Star

“Joan Didion began her career chronicling a certain ennui afflicting Californians coming up in the Vietnam era who were quickly losing faith in the society their parents created . . . The sense of a similar void animates Dave Eggers' new novel, Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? . . . Eggers has a knack for potent images of frustration . . . So soon after Elliot Rodger's California massacre, Eggers has produced something timely. There is a book to be written about angry young white men turning against a society that isn't giving them what they think they're owed.” -- Sam Worley, Chicago Tribune

"The third instalment in what now seems a triptych about people slipping through the cracks of our contemporary aspirations . . . a peculiar hostage drama told entirely in dialogue, looks like farce on the surface, but a sharp set of teeth soon shows through . . . alert, quick-witted and dogma-averse . . . [Eggers] works hard to surprise, challenge and confound . . . A book whose themes resonate far beyond its short length. This is a writer on the best kind of roll." -- Tim Martin, The Telegraph

"Fathers is a screaming, bleating cry for society to fix itself. It is a frothing, angry, mournful meditation on what is slipping away as America plows on into the 21st century….Eggers' decision to make Fathers a continuous dialogue is an interesting one. It intensifies the already manic qualities of his protagonist, Thomas, and makes for a lightning-quick read . . . compelling and at times suspenseful.” -- Henry C. Jackson, Chicago Daily Herald

“Hard not to be affected by his charm and literary DIY . . . We begin with Thomas, a confused young man who has drugged and kidnapped a NASA astronaut named Kev. Thomas is a mixed-up psychopath and arsonist who previously has attempted to burn down a hospital after his mentally disturbed best friend, Don Banh, was killed in a police shooting. . . Working in the tradition of Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman and Nicholson Baker’s Vox, the novel is without description or speaker attribution. . . Ambitious.” -- Alex Gilvarry, The Boston Globe

"Dave Eggers' latest novel is short and snappy. Composed entirely of dialogue, it breezes through four days in the life of Thomas, a disillusioned sociopath who has finally decided to get some answers to the questions that are strangling him at night . . . Eggers has created an appropriately Sophoclean space to look at Thomas' burning questions: Why does society prepare you for a life that doesn't exist? Why is there no grand, universal struggle? Why is there no purpose in life outside of individual needs? These concerns dance so gracefully into the discussions that you barely notice you're sparring with the existential heavyweights until one of them knocks you out . . . This short, provocative novel feels a bit like Jack Bauer stepping into Kierkegaard's collected works. Lively and fast enough for the casual reader, it also ambitiously confronts a grand history of philosophical angst. While the book's literary kin might be Dostoevsky or Kafka, its kissing cousin is Walker Percy . . . Swift and smart." -- Zoë Ferraris, San Francisco Gate

"Unmistakably the work of a singular talent . . . with each tightly controlled book, Eggers' fiction becomes more prescient, moving and unsettling . . . Eggers again finds the perfect form for his subject-matter . . . The novel thrives on ambiguity . . . Eggers examines the cataclysms that occur when our lives veer from the narratives that we construct for them. He's interested in the "throwaway people" who don't meet society's expectations. . . Even if all generations are lost generations, we need engaged, incendiary novels which ask: What now?" -- Max Liu, The Independent

"Dave Eggers never writes the same book twice, and his latest may be his most unusual to date . . . [A] fleet and forceful story by one of our finest fiction writers . . . The author makes his points in stark exchanges, with little exposition, and the book's spare style propels the reader to the end. Thomas isn't a likeable character, but he's an oddly sympathetic one -- or, at least, one who is easy to recognize.” -- Georgia Rowe, San Jose Mercury News 

"So deft . . . the setting and mood are perfectly clear - the remoteness of the dilapidated base, the roaring sea nearby, the danger facing his victims . . . Compelling, rattling along so lightly it would be a jeu d'esprit but for its sobering subject. Eggers writes so well you would read a computer manual if it was by him, but beneath his beguiling style is a base note of genuine concern about those who find themselves out of kilter with society . . . Intriguing . . . Eggers shows the tripwire that lies between acknowledging the world is unfair, and finding targets on whom to pin the blame when - perhaps the cruellest truth of all - the finger can rarely be pointed in any meaningful direction." -- Rosemary Goring, The Herald Scotland
 
“Engaging . . . You have to go back to Steinbeck and Vonnegut to find a popular American novelist so willing to deploy his talents to such deliberately political ends. . . . A moral fiction that’s as flexible and subtle as any other kind. . . . The dialogue-only structure and depth of feeling in Your Fathers are to its credit. You know what Eggers wants to say, he says it quickly, and he says it with a respectably righteous fury. And, ultimately, he says it with a compassion that’s always been present in his work. . . . Fascinating.” -- Mark Athitakis, The Washington Post

"[A] story about someone who takes revenge against the world because he can't fathom how he fits into it. . . This is a one-sitting read . . . Insightful." -- USA Today

“A jazz session—a brief, single helping of strangeness that flaunts his panache for stylistic experimentation. . . The writing is compelling and the characterization astute.” -- Booklist

“Have questions for an astronaut and can’t get him to answer your letters? You can always kidnap him, drag him to an abandoned military base near Monterey Bay, chain him to a post and threaten another jolt from your friendly Taser if he doesn’t cooperate. At least that’s the approach taken by 34-year-old Thomas in Dave Eggers’ new novel . . . As is always true with Eggers, those ideas—laid out here in quasi-Socratic dialogue—are inherently interesting. I can think of few contemporary American writers who convey such a sense of urgency about the mess we're in—or how important it is that we, like the Israelites surrounding Zechariah, resurrect the once-glorious Temple.  Eggers pulls no punches. . . Eggers makes these points even as he simultaneously manages empathy for Thomas’ plight, as a man who has inherited a fallen world he never made.” -- Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"The faint echo of Plato's dialogues . . . Raising questions about the appropriate relationship between authority and compassion." -- Kirkus

"Within 212 pages, Eggers displays a delicate, haunting, sometimes dire picture of the world. It may not be a comfortable read, but it's an interesting take on what we believe to be true and what we hope to be true." -- Mark Lopez, Alibi.com
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and other material that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?, Dave Eggers’s captivating new novel that follows a distraught young man who takes desperate measures to reconcile his frustration with our government and with his own life.

About the Guide

In a barracks on an abandoned military base, miles from the nearest road, Thomas watches as the man he has kidnapped wakes up. Kev, a NASA astronaut, doesn’t recognize his captor, though Thomas remembers him. Kev cries for help. He pulls at his chain. But the ocean is close by, and nobody can hear him over the waves and wind. Thomas apologizes. He ’didn’t want to have to resort to this. But they really needed to have a conversation, and Kev didn’t answer his messages. And now, if he can just stop yelling, Thomas has a few questions.

As Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? proceeds from this riveting opening, Dave Eggers poses fundamental questions about the value of national pride, religion, family, and self-worth. Formally daring, this blistering novel becomes a portrait of one man, unhinged, and our current position as a nation.

About the Author

Dave Eggers is the author of nine books, including most recently The Circle and A Hologram for the King, which was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. He is the founder of McSweeney’s, an independent publishing company based in San Francisco that produces books, a quarterly journal of new writing (McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern), and a monthly magazine (The Believer). McSweeney’s also publishes Voice of Witness, a nonprofit book series that uses oral history to illuminate human rights crises around the world. Eggers is the cofounder of 826 National, a network of eight tutoring centers around the country, and ScholarMatch, a nonprofit organization designed to connect students with resources, schools, and donors to make college possible. He lives in Northern California with his family.

Discussion Guides

1. How does the all-dialogue structure enhance the disorientation one feels upon entering the novel? How is the book similar to and different from a traditional play?

2. Thomas compares his capture of Kev to the government’s clandestine capture of enemy combatants for interrogation (page 8). What does this tell you about Thomas’s attitude toward government policies? Do political beliefs drive any of his other kidnappings, or are there other factors at play?

3. Although Thomas exudes confidence in his scheme from the start, his perspective can easily be called “unreliable.” How does the dialogue structure highlight when he can and cannot be trusted? What is the effect of this characterization coming both directly—through Thomas’s words—and indirectly—through the words of others?

4. What are the values that Thomas admires most in himself and others? Are these consistent with his own behaviors, in the past, present, and what he imagines for his and others’ futures?

5. Compare how Thomas greets and explains the situation to each of his captives. What does his tone at the beginning of each new chapter foreshadow about their relationships and how history will unfold?

6. How would you describe the humor in the book and its effects on you, the reader, the characters, and plot? Does laughter enhance or alleviate the reader’s unease throughout?

7. What makes Marview, a place that Thomas describes as “forgotten . . . anything near it . . . toxic and dead (page 39),” an ideal setting for what occurs in the novel? Consider, too, what its name suggests about the kind of experience one might have there, and whether the novel fulfills that implication.

8. How does Thomas’s conversation with Mr. Hansen introduce the idea of a very wide spectrum of guilt and sympathy for individuals? Where does each of the characters in the book fall on this spectrum, and does this change at all over the course of the novel? Is the set of captives somehow representative of the different degrees that one might have sympathy for or ascribe guilt to someone else, or do they tend to extremes?

9. Does what happened to Thomas as a boy, as we learn through Mr. Hansen and his mother, justify or explain any of his actions and thoughts? Why or why not? What do the histories of Kev and Frank, the cop, do to complicate arguments of nature vs. nurture with respect to Thomas’s motives and sanity?

10. How do the captives attempt to challenge Thomas? Consider what strengths Kev, the congressman, and Sara employ when trying to lead him out toward the police waiting for him.

11. Why is Thomas so drawn to the congressman, in particular, and constantly seeking his approval? How does the congressman embody the religious, militaristic, and moral ideals Thomas claims to have?

12. Does Thomas’s personality reflect the mind-set of a zealot or extremist, and if so, how? What does he think his greater purpose is, as an individual and for the world/society?

13. Did you feel that Thomas’s plight became more personally, rather than politically, motivated at any point in the novel? If so, why and when? Consider the sequence of events after Frank’s capture, and what might be a fundamental common ground between, for example, the meaning of Don’s death for Thomas and his views on U.S. space exploration and foreign policy.

14. Do Thomas’s arguments about war, government spending, mental illness, and social welfare apply to events today? Did you ever find yourself agreeing with Thomas’s views, and how did you feel about that?

15. At the end of the novel, can you say definitively what Thomas really wanted from his captives, separately and together? What do his statements about motive—“I just want to get something I want” (page 205) and “Do you realize what a strange race of people we are? No one else expects to get their way like we do. Do you know the madness that this unleashes upon the world—that we expect to have our way every time we get some idea in our head?” (page 173)—suggest about his own sureness of why he’s doing what he’s doing?

16. What is it about Sara’s relationship to Thomas’s fantasy life, versus his real life, that allows him to be so open with her?

17. What do you make of Thomas’s understanding of a fulfilling life? In conjunction with the last line of the book, discuss his judgment of people who are “paragons of virtue and heroism but in the end . . . just want to stay alive [and] don’t want to be part of anything extraordinary” (page 208). Does the way the novel ends suggest whether he’ll be successful in finding fulfillment?

18. What do you think is the meaning of the title of the book? How are these two questions raised throughout even as they’re never actually spoken? Are they answered, and if so how?

19. In what ways does dialogue stand in for narrative descriptions of setting and physical descriptions of the characters? What could you most easily visualize in your head, and what was more difficult?

20. In other books, Eggers has assumed the voice of a variety of characters real and fictional—from his friend Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee from the Sudanese Civil War in What Is the What to the adventurous boy Max in The Wild Things. How does this novel similarly explore, and expand upon, the range of voices and psychological traits from which Eggers can tell a story?

Suggested Readings

Julianna Baggott, The Pure Trilogy; Samuel Beckett, Endgame; Emma Donoghue, Room; Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment and Notes from the Underground; Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man; Joseph Heller, Catch-22; Peter Heller, The Dog Stars; Aldous Huxley, Brave New World; David Mamet, American Buffalo; Eugene O’Neill, The Emperor Jones; Matthew Quick, The Silver Linings Playbook; Sam Shepard, Curse of the Starving Class.

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