NOVEMBER 22, 2019
DAVE EGGERS IS the author, now, of a half dozen books for young readers and 12 for adults, the editor of a couple more, and was the founding editor of McSweeney’s. His latest book, and perhaps his oddest, is The Captain and the Glory, a short parable for our times that is 30 percent Veep, 30 percent Voltaire, and the rest flavored by Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Swift, Percival Everett, and Salman Rushdie. The Trumpian Captain is, as he says here, “a very terrified man-baby who becomes the captain of a ship, even though he doesn’t like boats or water.” We talked about satire, narrative, empathy in fiction, and empathy in the world. Eggers knows a thing or two about compassion, having co-founded Voices of Witness, 826 National, and ScholarMatch, all nonprofits that corral empathy for people who need it. I had interviewed Eggers about his previous book, The Parade, and was happy to be back in conversation. He uses very few talking points, seeming to take every question fresh out of the bag each time.
TOM LUTZ: You write nonfiction, fiction, and now The Captain and the Glory, which is satirical fable. Or allegory? — what do you call it, and why this form for this piece?
DAVE EGGERS: I think every story has its right form, and for this, for now, allegorical satire — if that is a thing, and maybe it is, because I say so — seemed like the right form.
There has been a school of thought that this administration is so whacked in so many ways that it made satire impossible — it satirizes itself. I’ve seen this in academic novels, too, sometimes — the reality’s distance from common ground can leave satire wanting. I remember reading one academic satire and thinking, Wow, the reality is actually worse than this. Was the project daunting for this reason?
Absolutely daunting. But I think that’s where allegory comes in. Setting this in contemporary Washington, DC, with the actual president in the actual White House, would be impossible to satirize. But if you move the action to a ship, and reduce the cast of characters a bit, and introduce new ones and new themes, then it can have a new and different sort of life. This story is parallel to the one we’re living, but it can be read, I think, without knowing the first thing about American politics. That was my hope, at least. You really only need to care about people, ships, maritime law, piracy, adult men who say they want to date their daughters, and maybe even human rights, too.
But of course it is better if you do know something about our current ship of state, right?
Sure. But the hope, my hope at least, is to give readers a bit of a respite, even while they know this story parallels our actual situation. Instead of, or in addition to, reading the transcripts from the impeachment hearings — which are phenomenally lucid and riveting, by the way — American citizens might also want to read about a very terrified man-baby who becomes the captain of a ship, even though he doesn’t like boats or water.
Forty percent of the US population that responds to surveys seems unshakable in its support for Trump. Do you have any sense that you are talking to them?
A while back, I signed up for Trump’s email list, to see what he sent his followers, and today I got an email that invited me to participate in a survey. That survey asked me who I’d be voting for in 2020, and it gave me two choices: one red button said Trump; the other red button said A Socialist Democrat. I did not make that up.
Then again, I’ve been to many Trump rallies as a journalist, and have interviewed so many attendees, and I have to say, uniformly, that the people I talked to were always willing to chat, ponder, consider, and reason. I’m absolutely sure there are some frothing caveman lunatic racists at these rallies, but the people I’ve met have been a startlingly diverse group of people who support Trump for a wide variety of reasons, some of them very narrow: they like his views on the military, for instance, or the police. Or they credit him with a strong economy. At the same time, they have reservations. They roll their eyes. But they have been extremely open and intellectually nimble with me, and I usually come away thinking that much of his support is less loony and unshakable than I feared. If, for example, the economy was not strong, he would be in deep trouble.
All that said, what’s clear at every rally I’ve seen is that of the 10,000 or so people present, the weirdest, most brazenly demented person in the room is the one at the microphone. And that’s a phenomenon that should puzzle anthropologists for centuries.
I just wrote my first novel after a lot of nonfiction, and I was surprised to find myself feeling oddly exposed in the fiction — I had thought I would feel hidden, disguised, defended, but instead I felt like my Freudian slip was showing, and more exposed than I feel when I’m writing about my own travels or experience. You obviously move from genre to genre quite comfortably, but can you speak to the particular issues you faced as a writer taking on this new form?
Well, back in the day, I wrote satire quite a bit. We even had a satirical magazine, Might, for many years, so I feel like much of my 20s was spent writing in a satirical voice. Returning to it felt very liberating and oddly cathartic. The writing in Captain flowed in a way that was weirdly jubilant at times, especially given the horror of much of the story.
That makes me think that yes, there is a bit of satirical voice in Heartbreaking Work and elsewhere, like in You Shall Know Our Velocity.
There’s a through-line there for sure, though it’s different here of course. There wasn’t the same kind of narrative distance in those books. Here I tried to give this story a blithe, omniscient narrator — a bit of Thackeray and some Fielding, and then again not much of either.
I assume the subtitle, An Entertainment, is a reference to Graham Greene, who I love, and steal from quite a bit myself. Some of Greene’s “entertainments” were screenplays first, and some were, like The Captain and the Glory, darkly humorous. How do you see the relation? And do you see a screenplay here?
I don’t see a screenplay, I don’t think. But while finishing Captain, and just a few weeks before I had to turn it in, I was reading The Comedians, and was reminded of Greene’s sometime-subtitle, and it seemed perfectly appropriate for the Captain. I don’t know of Greene’s intentions when he added that moniker to certain books, but I like the way it sets the reader up to expect something light and airy, when in fact most of those books were anything but..
It occurs to me that The Parade exists somewhere between Greene’s work and the world of The Captain and the Glory.
The Parade definitely exists in Greene’s world, I think, though I hadn’t had him in mind while writing it. (Conrad, yes.) Outside of the subtitle, The Captain doesn’t really owe anything to Greene. It’s much more insane and surreal than his work, which is — at least I see it as — more earthbound and true to the workings of the actual world. I wanted Captain to be heightened, to exist in its own world with its own rules and constraints, but with far less logic.
Speaking of remaining true to the workings of the actual world: your nonfiction is quite varied, including the complex memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and books like Zeitoun and The Monk of Mokha, which are other people’s stories — novel-length profiles, would you call them? For my creative nonfiction students, can you say something about working in that form?
I would just classify those books as nonfiction accounts of recent history, seen through the eyes of one or two protagonists, depending on the book. For whatever reason, we learn history better when our emotions are involved, when we can live that historical moment in a way only possible through the written word, and at a certain length. Novels and narrative nonfiction give us the chance to inhabit the mind, and see through the eyes of, another human, and to experience that inimitable empathy transference.
Both books do have a take on empathy and its lack. I don’t want to provide any spoilers, but did you know when you started The Captain and the Glory that you wanted the ending to have the emotional resonance it does? It is very different than the way The Parade ends, for instance.
I wrote most of the first draft about six months after Trump was elected. The first passage I wrote is the one where we witness the actual decision of the passengers of The Glory to entrust their lives to the ship’s least trusted man. Then I put the book aside for a while, finished The Parade, and after a time came back to Captain. And I still liked it, and still thought it said something I wasn’t seeing out there. So I dug in again, and had that weirdly cathartic experience I described before — and an unexpected momentum in finishing the book. The ending, then, came almost as a surprise to myself. Very often, and definitely with The Parade, I know the general shape of the ending before I begin. In this case, I found myself writing something that was decidedly hopeful at the end, and I had to let that sit for a bit, to be sure it was earned and true. But it does reflect how I feel. I do think we’re in a very anomalous, feverish time, where millions are dancing around a golden calf, without all their wits. I do think the fever will break, and we will, I believe, find ourselves returning to our better selves.