No popular American writer is more interested in the relationship between the U.S. and the world right now than Dave Eggers. In the two decades since his breakout memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the best-selling author has zeroed in on culture clashes and immigrant tales, national crises and international disasters — and at an impressive output, often publishing, between his work in children’s literature, adult novels, and narrative nonfiction, multiple books in a single year.
But what about the relationship between Eggers and his readers? His fiction, particularly, has suffered of late. After a string of belabored and emotionally cold attempts to communicate whatever happened to be on his mind — the horrors of the internet economy (2013’s The Circle), the dangers posed by the alienated Gen-X male (2014’s Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?) — Eggers made a small creative comeback in 2016 with Heroes of the Frontier, a comic and human story bolstered by an intriguing protagonist. But here we are again with The Parade, the author’s first 2019 title which distills his worst tendencies into a stiff, opaque sub-200-page parable.
The Parade finds worthy areas of inquiry in its slim, spare telling, yet Eggers all but rejects the principles of good storytelling. Billed as a novel, The Parade reads more like an extended short story, reserving its knife-turn for the final page and plodding until then. For plot, Eggers partners up a pair of (presumably) American men who are assigned to a mysterious contracting gig. They assume the codenames of Four and Nine, respectively, as they begin their work on a road-paving project in an unspecified country emerging from the bloody, traumatic haze of civil war. (Eggers says he got his first “inkling” about the book when he traveled to South Sudan in 2014.) The road Four and Nine are tasked to complete carries enormous significance: It’ll mark a major step toward unity for the country, linking its capital to a rural city in the south. The president, a lover of political theater, has planned a massive parade to take place the moment it’s finished.
Four and Nine are opposites: The former has worked countless assignments — 63, to be exact — just like this one, and focuses intently on executing it promptly, without hassle or distraction or taking a break unless it’s “unavoidable”; we meet the latter having just slept with a woman he probably shouldn’t have, and arriving very late to breakfast the next morning. Four is unnerved by Nine’s unhinged mien, immediately dubbing his partner a “liability” and “an agent of chaos.” The Parade declines to complicate these snap judgments as told from the point of view of Four, a lifeless symbol of the inhumanity that American interventionism breeds, trained like a soldier to totally disregard the locals and their customs — even if his mission impacts them directly.
Eggers treats this morality play like a plastic wind-up toy. He introduces simplistic main characters before planting a set of obstacles on their predestined paths. Nine’s actions imperil his and others’ lives; he learns the consequences of his fecklessness. Through Nine, Four is forced to see the country’s citizens in a different, more empathetic light. It’s all so glibly neat. On one page deep into the book, as they come to an understanding with each other, Nine gushes to Four, “We did something good…. You did, that is. We actually did something here.” Four, initially reluctant, then “soften[s] toward Nine.” Eggers’ embrace of the saccharine had me waiting, begging for the cynical hammer to drop.
Eggers’ writing in The Parade is fine — often lovely in its attention to physical detail, utterly lacking in soul. The allegorical nature of the prose hints at weighty complexity, but what materializes ranges from a college term paper steeped in pessimism to a narrative assembled from crocodile tears. Who is this novel for? The question seems appropriate to ask given Eggers’ blinkered approach. The plot — two contractors painting and paving a road — doesn’t yield much in the way of momentum or excitement. The characters are heavy-handed archetypes. The abrupt ending elicits a feeling of hopelessness which, however intentional, reinforces the book’s brooding, grim vibe. A product of its author’s experiences, perspective, and imagination, The Parade makes for a claustrophobic reading experience.
After finishing The Parade, I thought back to Eggers’ previous full-length book, The Monk of Mokha, published in January of last year. A biography of a young Yemeni coffee farmer, Mokha was anchored by its fiercely driven and unique subject; while imperfect, it smartly confronted ongoing conversations regarding Muslim-American identity and the state of the American dream. Bound to life as it happened, Eggers got at big, thorny ideas by providing a well-told story, with a nuanced hero, a gripping narrative, and an authentic sense of time and place — the stuff, in other words, that we’d expect of a novel like The Parade. But the author’s latest is hardly eye-opening in the way fiction can and should be. Eggers is good enough to know better. C-
More book reviews: