A man takes a bunch of hostages for the sake of some robust, moderately unhinged conversation about ethics in Eggers’ latest big-issue novel.
With A Hologram for the King (2012), Eggers began diligently feeling his way toward a form for a moral novel that would address 21st-century economics and politics. The results have been hit or miss: Hologram was an impressive Hemingway-esque study of the alienation that rapid high-tech expansion sows, while The Circle (2013) was a sodden and didactic jeremiad about social media’s capacity to chisel away at our privacy. His new novel is similarly message-laden but, since it’s brief and told exclusively in dialogue, doesn’t wear out its welcome. Thomas, the novel’s antihero, has kidnapped a number of people and shackled them in separate buildings on a decommissioned California Army base; among them are an astronaut he knew in college, a Vietnam-vet congressman, a grade school teacher, his mother and a police officer. Thomas is clearly unstable, but the discussions that spill out address legitimate real-world concerns. Why are governments more adept at financing war than education? Where is the line between inappropriate and criminal behavior, and who decides? How much of our capacity to navigate the world is predetermined, and how much of it is a function of experience? The deliberately unrealistic structure carries the faint echo of Plato’s dialogues, though Eggers is careful to keep the tone relatively casual. (Like many fictional madmen, Thomas is frightening, but he holds your attention.) Over the course of the handful of days the novel covers, Thomas becomes more delusional, but also more revealing of a critical incident in this life, which gives the closing pages some needed drama while raising questions about the appropriate relationship between authority and compassion.
Eggers turns this novel’s contrivances into an asset, though overall it feels more like a series of philosophy-symposium prompts than a full-fledged story.