The Parade by Dave Eggers

 

If you’ve read any of Dave Eggers’ fiction in the last few years, you’re probably well aware that straight-up family-drama novels are not really his shtick.

In the past decade, amid works of narrative nonfiction, children’s novels, and various long-form articles for such media outlets as the New York Times and the New Yorker, he’s churned out a quasi-allegory about the disgruntled and economically disintegrating middle-class America via a story about a man going through a midlife crisis (A Hologram for the King); an analysis of the boundaries (or lack thereof) of privacy, ethics and personal freedom in the age of the Internet via a young woman’s foray into working for a powerful social media company (The Circle); and a particularly ardent message-driven novel about misuse of power (Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?).

The Parade, Eggers’ sixth novel, fits comfortably into this well-stocked compendium of books with equal parts entertaining narrative and preachy point-making. But though the book is astutely observed and tightly written, it’s not without its drawbacks.

Set in an unnamed developing country in the last days of a decades-long civil war, the compact story — unlike some of Eggers’ previous works — is fairly straightforward. Two contractors from an unnamed international company are hired to pave and paint a recently completed highway that connects the country’s urban north with its barren, disconnected south. If all goes according to plan, the job should take two weeks. When the project is complete, the new government will hold a giant parade to celebrate the promise of this new unified land.

The (yes, unnamed) men charged with completing the task couldn’t be more opposite from each other. The more senior of the duo, nicknamed Four, is stuffy, rule-abiding and a real stickler for routine. On previous contracts, his colleagues called him “the Clock” because of his extreme punctuality and myopic focus on business. Throughout his 63 assignments paving 4,660 miles of road on four continents in eight years, Four simply had no interest in engaging with his environment on a personal level. This job is no different.

“I have nothing to say about the pride of your people,” Four says to a villager after declining to participate in a celebration in his honor. “I’m passing through. I’m doing my work. I want to be ignored and forgotten here. That’s all.”

In contrast, Nine — the hunky, floppy-haired man in charge of clearing the road of any obstacles before Four rolls along with the paver — is a well-meaning Good Samaritan but an undeniable buffoon. (Think Owen Wilson’s character in any movie he’s cast in.) Instead of following company orders, Nine makes every harebrained decision imaginable. He drinks disease-ridden water, gets drunk with people in the villages and beds women with abandon, and gives away the company cell phone and first aid kit to locals he thinks need them more than he and Four do.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so immediately and profoundly connected,” he says after his first day on the job. “They know me. They look at me, they see me, they acknowledge me in a way no one ever has.”

With this kind of idealism vs. rationalism, “agent of chaos” vs. Mr. Responsible setup, it’s not at all surprising when Nine falls ill, jeopardizing not only the project’s completion but also his and Four’s lives. As many of these types of similarly themed narratives go, it’s also not a shocker that Four grows gradually less rigid, more trusting of his surroundings, and a little less harsh about Nine’s antics just as it becomes clear that Nine’s life really is on the line.

Photo: Brecht Van Maele

Here’s where The Parade works. Though mostly without nuance, Eggers’ portrayal of the rebel-ransacked, withered country as Four’s paver rumbles along on its journey is vivid and on point. “All the glass had been shattered, all the roofs caved in, there were legless men and clinics full of the dying and destitute. There were a million displaced, a million in exile, ten thousand orphans,” he writes of the country’s capital.

Equally successful is the book’s depiction of the entrenched First World/Third World dichotomy. Four and Nine’s company’s insistence on anonymity highlights the myriad ways in which real-world developing nations are being taken advantage of, and permanently altered, by places like the United States, China and the like in the name of progress. (Just take a look at, say, the battle over the construction of the Apolo-Ixiamas Road through rural communities and Madidi National Park in Bolivia and you’ll see what I’m getting at.)

But what doesn’t pass enough muster is Eggers’ reliance on two protagonists who come off too much like stock characters to drive the symbolism of his narrative home. Because Nine and Four are so diametrically opposed, pitting one archetype against another to prove a point just seems too easy, especially for an author with a proven knack for dissecting the social, economic and political forces at play in today’s increasingly complicated world.

Perhaps even more egregious is the novel’s whopper of an ending. While it would spoil the impact to reveal the gist of what transpires in the last (yes, last) paragraph of the book, suffice to say I couldn’t help but feel either like it was somehow a joke on the reader — or a cop-out finale to an otherwise flawed, but certainly engaging and thought-provoking parable.

At just shy of 200 pages, The Parade reads more like an MFA creative writing exercise than a fully fleshed-out novel. Sure, it will undoubtedly spark fascinating conversations about the state of the world. But especially given Eggers’ prolific output — I was left wanting more.

 

Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle (April 1, 2019)

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