As an arts administrator by day, I bow to the feet of Dave Eggers. Founder of McSweeney’s, who host an impressive range of projects and work with some of my favourite writers (they have published two titles I’ve posted about here - Hilton Als’ White Girls and the magazine The Believer), Eggers also founded the incredible 826 Valencia project - a non-profit organisation that helps kids with reading and writing in a supportive and imaginative way. When I was in San Francisco in 2012 I was lucky enough to visit 826 Valencia’s Pirate Store - a wonderful ode to the imagination and to words - where local kids come to play and to receive tutoring in English and writing. My friend Clara was interning there when I was in town and I was blown away by the work that her and her colleagues were doing there. It’s fitting then that as I read Eggers’ most recent release I was preparing to attend a McSweeney’s masterclass at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival - taught by Clara and the Quarterly Concern’s editor Jordan Bass - and to see Eggers speak as the closing act of the festival.
As a reader, my feelings towards Eggers are mixed. My first encounter with his writing was with How We Are Hungry, which left me curious enough to read more. But I disbanded A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius mid-way, perhaps not reading it at the right time or perhaps not understanding what all the fuss was about. Then I read What Is The What, which remains my favourite work of his. Zeitoun didn’t quite hit those heights but I enjoyed the sentiment carried over from What Is The What of telling stories that risk being swept under the carpet. But then came along A Hologram For The King and I was bored. I worried that Eggers best work was in short fiction or in semi-biographical fiction, that his works of pure imagination just weren’t quite imaginative enough. I hadn’t brought myself to read The Circle after hearing some pretty awkward reviews, but something intrigued me about Your Fathers… A dialogue only novel, I thought it would at the very least open up an interesting line of questioning for his appearance at the Melbourne Writers Festival. But even better than that, I really enjoyed it.
Your Fathers… is essentially a thriller. The central character Thomas is on a quest for answers. Lost and spiralling, the book begins with him kidnapping his teenage hero Kev, an astronaut who never made it to the moon. As the inquisition into why this is the case begins, Thomas looks to be hunting for symbolism - without funding for expeditions into space, how will we hold out hopes for the seemingly unachievable? If astronauts no longer go to the moon, what will little boys dream of? This acts as the starting block for Thomas as one hostage after another is brought to an abandoned military barracks by the sea, tied to a post and locked in a solitary room, all in the hope of answering the biggest question of Thomas’ life: why was his childhood friend killed by local police?
The pacing of this novel is superb. Writing only in dialogue means there is no room to pause: sometimes this can be alienating to a reader, particularly when using difficult or flowery language, but in a thriller it captivates. Turning page after page before Thomas moves into the next building and then next chapter begins, I found myself reading the whole novel in a day or so. Indeed if I’d had the time I would have loved to spend an afternoon racing through Your Fathers… to give it the pace it deserves. Eggers was asked about his decision to write in this style during his interview with Benjamin Law at the Melbourne Writers Festival and spoke about his desire to write “at the speed of thought”, which this technique allowed him to do. He also put forward that when it comes to writing, “constraints can be liberating”. Indeed this is a tightly written work - not building narration around dialogue means there’s no room to distract, to embellish or over-dramatise.
Eggers uses Your Fathers… as an outlet for what is becoming a more and more urgent rage in his writing. His works What Is The What and Zeitoun used individuals to tell stories of greater injustices incredibly evocatively. Somehow this seemed to get lost in A Hologram For The King for me, a little too forced, a similar sentiment that I saw come up again and again in reviews for The Circle. But in Your Fathers… the anger feels real. It’s contemporary but timeless: how did we get to this point and why isn’t someone asking questions? Thomas asks early on:
“We just spent five trillion dollars on useless wars. That could have gone to the moon. Or Mars…Or something that would inspire us in some goddamned way.”
Thomas never stops asking questions, in a way we imagine Eggers doesn’t either. We know that eventually Thomas will be found and likely captured or shot by the police. He is constantly reminded of this by his captives but it doesn’t slow him down. It reminded me a little of when I was reading Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites on the tram home from work one night. A fellow passenger saw the cover and couldn’t help but say to me ‘oh, that book! I loved it.’ We started chatting about it and I really vividly remember her saying ‘it’s just so depressing though - I mean, we all know what’s coming.’ There is no big twist here, the story builds at a constant pace and as soon as the second hostage is captured we know this can never end well. But what Eggers achieves brilliantly here is that despite knowing all this, I still stayed captivated. Your Fathers… reminded me that there is such a thing as a literary thriller (Gone Girl in my opinion not being one of them) and they can be incredibly exciting, imaginative and full of heart - just like McSweeney’s, 826 Valencia and Eggers’ other projects.
After a very busy couple of weeks, I’ve finally slowed down. During the Melbourne Writers Festival I was lucky enough to have some slow mornings, where I could gently wake up, drink tea and make myself a nice breakfast. I had seen Heidi from Apples Under My Bed (who’s recipe for Poached Quinces I paired with Americanah here) post photos of this Stovetop Granola to her Instagram a bunch of times and now having a bit of extra time in the morning seemed a great time to try it out. But actually it took no time at all. As Heidi says in her introduction, you can cook everything in a few minutes then leave it to cool while you shower or take in the morning. It’s a great base recipe that you could adapt by adding spices, dried fruit or different nuts. I threw in a tablespoon of flaked coconut on top of the listed two tablespoons of seeds and it added a really nice textural contrast. It was sweet and sticky so serving it with natural yoghurt was a good balance, along with some tart fruit such as strawberries and kiwi fruit, or here with rhubarb cooked in orange juice and cloves. This granola recipe made three large serves and kept well in a sealed container over the next few days, giving me even more time to take it slow in the mornings to come.