lotta reviewers crapping about how it’s all dialogue, or how parts of it stretch credulity, or about how it’s a long whine about white-boy privilege… ya, sort of. but.
the central issue of the book–which i take to be about how the US has abandoned the idea of doing anything Big (like going to space) and thus left generations of young, bright men with nothing heroic to do–well, it may not have the emotional punch of more desperate needs, but that doesn’t make it meaningless. a writer can examine all aspects of human life–they’re all fair game. and i think he has a point with this one.
a lot of young men do feel that way–that they want to do something Big, and have an effect in the world, have their lives mean something. what’s wrong with that? nothing, except that we don’t live in those times. maybe by choice, maybe by circumstance (the only two frontiers left are space and the oceans)… but we don’t live there.
our protag essentially kidnaps a whole bunch of folks, one by one, and seeks some answers from them. from the astronaut: why aren’t we going to space? from the congresscritter: where did our big dreams go? from the teacher: why did you molest us (or, did you?)? from his mom: why didn’t you keep me safe? from the cop: why are you shooting us? and from the “love”-interest: why won’t you run away with me?
it’s pretty easy to look at the list and see a great big whine in the making, but unless one has excavated a chernobyl-sized hole in one’s memory and covered it over with concrete six feet thick, it’s also really easy to see some fundamental questions there ought to be answers for. adolescents ask these kinds of questions, and adults poo-pooh them until they stop. that doesn’t mean the questions aren’t worth asking, or that the answers aren’t deeply revealing about who we are as a people.
i don’t take each of the kidnapees as a “real human”–i’m not looking for emotional depth in them (which is good, because it’s not there). they’re there to be the mouthpieces for society’s answers to impossible questions. they’re a function, really, not a character. and i’m totally fine with that, because having a “real human” would just muddy the issues our kidnapper brings up.
my only complaint about the book is that there really isn’t any room in it for women. we have a representative Mom and a representative Love Object, and that’s it. it probably wasn’t in Eggers’ remit for the book, but it’s still kind of disappointing to me that the questions that young women ask never enter this discussion at all.
and one thing i think Eggers failed to make best use of: Fort Ord itself. the place is superlatively creepy and would have made a great character–28,000 acres of former artillery ranges, open space, dilapidated and crumbling buildings, parking lots being taken over by weeds. for his book, he understandably emptied the place and locked the “gates”, but Fort Ord in daylight is a monument to waste and greed, and at night is full of ghosts and homeless folks. it’s entirely emblematic of so many of the things he rails against in the book.
i listened to the audiobook version–it was very well performed.