Saturday, August 22, 2015

A Review of 'Your Fathers, Where Are They?' by Dave Eggers

Like I said on twitter, I would like to congratulate Dave Eggers not only for writing a brilliant novel but for giving it a title too long to be meaningfully tweetable. Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? is, as the blurbs on the front cover say, 'prescient and moving', 'angry and astute'.

I picked this book up at the library literally as a transition book. I closed the last page of Marilynne Robinson's Home and looked at the next book on my nightstand, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, and just wasn't ready to move from the one to the other. I wanted a quick, less emotionally involving, read. That's when Eggers' bright green cover caught my eye, and the indications inside that it was mostly dialogue sealed the deal.

Turns out this book is entirely dialogue. There is not one word about setting or action or even emotion. Not even a 'he said' or a 'she retorted'. This is a remarkable feat when one considers the fact that it nonetheless, by the end, actually does give the reader a profound impression of the setting and the emotion involved, and that not one sentence feels forced or strained. For this reason alone it is a remarkable piece of fiction.

But the thing that hits home about this book is its social commentary, which is conveyed, again, without ever stepping out of character to straightforwardly say anything. One detects from the first few pages (and the ostentatious title) that the book might prompt some questions, but it is only as the conversations unfold that the opportunity for reflection slowly snowballs. By the end it is bigger than you'd realized. You're thinking back through the story and finding all kinds of perception and nuance you may not have overthought at the time.

It is almost a shame to take that and then just straight-up summarize and analyze it. So here's a spoiler alert if you're compelled to go pick the book up and have the experience yourself: It will take you a bit of effort to go get the book, and maybe an afternoon or a few days to go read it, but maybe you want to go do that before you come back and read what I want to pull out of it next.

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? is a frank look into the mind and experience of one of those mystifying social outcasts who make the news for doing something either inexplicably daft or downright evil. The school shooters. The people shouting on the street outside of the drugstore. The misfits who, well, just never fit. The people you can ignore until they refuse to be ignored anymore. This novel takes you inside.

What's so good about the way Dave Eggers does this is that it is all so modestly driven by the main character's agenda that you sometimes almost forget he is doing something horrible. You see what he's doing and you understand. On its own this would be nothing new in modern fiction. We're used to being asked to simply empathize with a criminal, even sometimes to take the side of the 'bad guy'. This novel is smarter than that. It manages empathy without for a second offering an excuse. The character is at the same time objectionable and understandable, but the most arresting thing about the narrative is that it is all so normal.

There are no really big words. Apart from being so candid and frank, it is all just normal conversation. The only thing artificial about it is the way that the character is making these irksome conversations happen. It is almost like his number one goal is just to get people to be honest. It reminds me of Marilyn Manson's comment (in Bowling for Columbine) where he said that if he had had the chance to talk to those school shooters, he would have just listened to them.

Eggers gives us a likely view into such a person's manner of thinking. There are no excuses. Part of you wants to label the guy 'normal', another part of you still wants to says 'nuts'. But by the end of the book at least you know him.

But there are other characters worth thinking about too. The astronaut, the lady on the beach, the cop, the congressman, the school teacher, the mom, the social-outcast friend with the knife who got shot in the head. Eggers has a purpose for each of these, which I only really picked up on in retrospect. Each of them in their own way has experienced what the main character has experienced, but has responded in different ways. Some more admirably, some just as objectionably, even if more acceptably (socially-speaking).

The one page in the book which I think comes closest to straightforward social commentary is right near the end, and it comes from the one I'd consider the 'hero' of the book, the congressman. He is the one who makes the most earnest attempt to understand, or at least appear to understand, the main character's angst. He calls him 'son', and in a way is the father he needed all along. He gets it. He was in Vietnam, lost limbs, saw things that scarred him for life and, with all of that as his motivation to do better, entered politics.

One review of the book pointed out that sometimes the conversations lack veracity because one of the dialogue partners is trying to appease the other. This may be so, but I think it adds to rather than subtracts from the realism and nuance of the story. (And in the case of the New York Times objection about the congressman's views on war veterans, it begs to be pointed out that the congressman himself disproves the statements the reviewer finds problematic). Surely the views expressed are caricatures, but that's the point. That's why it is realistic: Because like it or not that's how the angst-riddled social-outcast is perceiving these things. At the very least the book calls for more attentive explanations.

In the case of the excerpt I'm going to pull out below, however, it doesn't really matter whether the congressman actually believes what he's saying. The comments have an insight to them I'll be carrying with me for a while.

Our main character has just confessed to him: 'For some reason the hospital woman makes me madder than the cops who shot him. I mean, why is that? Two years later I still don't understand it.' And the congressman replies:

---Killing feels more natural in some way. Killing is some kind of connection. It's a convoluted connection, but it is one.... But what happened at the hospital is something else. It's not human. It's not primal. So we don't understand it. It's a more recent mutation. The things we all have, love and hate and passion, and the need to eat and yell and screw, these are things every human has. But there's this new mutation, this ability to stand between a human being and some small measure of justice and blame it on some regulation. To say that the form was filled out incorrectly.
---Yeah, yeah, what is that? That's the doom of us all.
---This is a new thing, son, and it's a frightening thing. It's something I saw every day in the VA. And if you think it's bad in some hospital, Christ, you wouldn't last a minute in Washington. 

Rather than edit that last bit of 'language', I'll take it as more of faithless lamentation. Obviously we ought to respond to this social 'mutation' more like the congressman than the criminal, but it doesn't hurt to say we understand. Even to admit that not everyone can pull it together like the congressman does. Although he lashes out in unfortunate ways, all our main character is asking for is a vision. Something better to be a part of. It is foolish to let that be an excuse for his actions, but it is a pretty accurate encapsulation of the question the disturbed individual might be trying to ask. The question is too big to answer, perhaps, but the point is to hear it, not to answer it. 

What's intriguing is that the title for Eggers novel is actually a 'word of the Lord' through the biblical prophet Zechariah, who was led to say:
“The Lord was very angry with your fathers. Therefore say to them, Thus declares the Lord of hosts: Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. Do not be like your fathers, to whom the former prophets cried out, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.’ But they did not hear or pay attention to me, declares the Lord. Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever?" (Zech 1:2-5 ESV)
Putting down Eggers' novel it feels like the congressman was the father the main character never had. In fact I can't help but feel like the book is a call to fathers and mothers and sons to 'return' and to 'hear' and to 'pay attention' once again.

If you are inclined to go read this book I encourage you to do so. I hope I haven't spoiled it. As is usually the case, it must be said that the book is better (and almost shorter!) than the review. The discussion we could have would probably also be better than any one interpretation alone, so if you've read it and want to talk about it, do drop me a comment.

One last thing merits an accolade: This novel has the most em-dashes of any book I've ever read. Nice work Dave Eggers.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Two Days, One Night

In ten years blogging only twenty-one other movies have compelled me to give them a ten out of ten. This is the twenty-second. Somehow sparing and direct at once, it's just a profound, perfect little film.


Friday, July 31, 2015

On the Church and Planned Parenthood

I am not American but the current Planned Parenthood scandal certainly strikes a nerve. I haven't watched any videos but have read some transcripts and a variety of solicited and unsolicited opinions on the matter. I'm not through thinking about this, but having failed to keep quiet on social media I now find myself feeling compelled to try to articulate a concern. It's about a temptation which always crops up in churches when we get talking against abortions. It's the temptation toward sanctimonious outrage which tends to be the go-to response from people who, like me, have been pro-life in name but not so much in action. We can offer up all the legitimate excuses in the book, but not many of us have really pushed ourselves against our felt-limitations all that much.

Let's face it: Abortion is tough because for many of us the act itself a cut-and-dry ethical no-no, and yet the context in which it occurs makes opposition to it very complicated. Like it or not, ours is a society which protects sexual liberty while simultaneously heightening pervasive sexual temptation to inhumane levels, and then puts most of the responsibility for dealing with the consequences on individuals themselves. Female individuals, mostly. When it comes down to it, most of the responsibility is on women--particularly less-privileged women. That means sexual liberty is significantly more 'liberating' for men than for women. We could wish this fact away but it is still there.

Thus in the current scenario there are a number of related issues which make a straight-up de-funding of Planned Parenthood problematic. One is the (apparently) inadequate level of preparedness to replace the non-abortive services which Planned Parenthood offers, were it to disappear. This is more than a merely pragmatic issue. It is a real and recurring moral problem for pro-lifers like me. So much so that it stings: Without such readiness our anti-abortionism really does put us on the wrong side of a woman's rights issue. We cannot hide behind the dictum that 'these women should simply not get pregnant in the first place.' The statement only proves the point and exposes our own complicity in the social politic (of inconsistent individualism). Anti-abortion legislation which leaves unchallenged the exploitatively male-biased sexual-culture on one side, and offers inadequate help to pregnant women (especially of lesser means) on the other, is simply not prepared to be pro-life in the fullest sense of the term.

I say this as a long-term 'pro-lifer' who has done next-to-nothing about it other than to throw votes away to conservative parties who, in the end, were simply dangling anti-abortion sentiment like a carrot on a stick. This is a legal and political issue but it should never have been left to legislators and politicians. To be honest I'm not sure what exactly I personally should have done, but that probably just tells you I let it slip from my mind most the time because I was too daunted or alone. And yet we all know people who have done things (worked for crisis pregnancy centres, fostered and adopted children, fought against sexual exploitation, etc), and we can all say to what degree we've been helpful to them. Me not so much. Part of it, I confess, has been paralysis. Seeing the forest for the trees has been overwhelming, and I have caved to hopelessness rather than living in hope, faith, and love.

John 8:1-11
This is not a guilt-parade. It is just to say that our anti-abortionism, where it exists, needs to be penitent rather than sanctimonious. Not all Christians are in fact opposed to abortion, but those who are do need to try to be consistent. A church opposed to abortion has to be a church which thoroughly supports women before and after pregnancy. It also needs to be a church which is prepared to lean into and offer if not a completely alternative social politic at least a credibly viable one. Else it ends up offering mostly words. Words which on this issue feel like more for the pile of inequity against women. Words which starkly contrast to Jesus' silent solidarity with the woman about to be stoned for adultery.

Jesus had things to say on other occasions of course. Words which established a powerful alternative of life in self-giving community, where sex finds its rightful place in covenant health. Words which established grace-communities of daily confession and forgiveness, mutual support and accountability. Powerful words--as long as they don't end in the futility of resurrection-less inactivity. By the grace of God I hope I might at least be found among those who follow where those words take them. I don't have much to offer at the moment, I'm afraid, except maybe these few unpolished words about our words. I guess it is just that I have heard how I sound in moments like these, when words spouted in black and white, without attention to the greater web of implicated actions required, were exposed for their emptiness--if not their outright pharisaism. I say this in the penitence of political and personal paralysis. Christ have mercy.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The view from Gilead: 'That's the strangest thing about being in the ministry'

'That's the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things. 

There's a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn't really expect to find it, either....

My reputation is largely the creature of the kindly imaginings of my flock, whom I chose not to disillusion, in part because the truth had the kind of pathos in it that would bring on sympathy in its least bearable forms. 

Well, my life was known to them all, every significant aspect of it, and they were tactful. 

I've spent a good share of my life comforting the afflicted, but I could never endure the thought that anyone should try to comfort me, except Boughton, who always knew better than to talk much.'

- John Ames, in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead (pages 6 & 46)

(What's she's able to capture here--I'm not sure it could be said better)

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The view from Gilead: 'confusion where theology is concerned'

'Two or three of the ladies had pronounced views on points of doctrine, particularly sin and damnation, which they never learned from me. I blame the radio for sowing a good deal of confusion where theology is concerned. And television is worse. You can spend forty years teaching people to be awake to the fact of mystery and then some fellow with no more theological sense than a jackrabbit gets himself a radio ministry and all your work is forgotten. I do wonder where it will end.'

- Rev. John Ames, in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, page 237

(A prophecy of facebook memes and blogs)