The battle between form and substance for great writers can sometimes yield mixed results. Any shifts between mammoth doorstop epic novels can yield risky results if not effectively balanced. The writer more comfortable with the epic narrative spanning many generations can appear lost with the smaller format. Whether it’s an “entertainment” or a vicious satire whose targets are easily identified and whose jokes don’t always land, the narrative that exists somewhere between a long short story and a novel can sometimes feel homeless. What point is the author making? Has he sacrificed character development and dramatic coherency for clever satirical jabs?
Dave Eggers‘ new book The Captain and the Glory: An Entertainment is more than just a rest stop between bigger projects. For the past twenty years he has been a darling of post-modern literature, a less pretentious Jonathan Franzen, a less ambitious Jonathan Lethem, a much less difficult William T. Vollman. Working as a memoirist (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), novelist (A Hologram for the King) or (arguably most importantly) founding editor of the Best American Non-Required Reading series (benefiting the 826 Valencia Literacy program for young people), Eggers has worked tirelessly to develop and create a distinctive literary voice.
Not all of Eggers’ books are relevant or effective. But the weaker books still work for their sheer readability and commitment to form. As for The Captain and the Glory, the problem might be that a satire about the literal sinking ship of the Donald Trump presidency (with the man himself only identified here as the titular Captain) barely stays afloat. Eggers starts promisingly by naming some of the people on the Captain’s ship:
“There was…a patsy named Michael the Cohen…a natilly dressed racketeer named Paul the Manefort…and the rest of the Upskirt Boys…”
The informed reader thinks of the far right, racist organization, Proud Boys. A passenger admits he likes “that guy” because he says whatever is in his head. The ship sees itself in turmoil, so the people elect “that guy” its Captain. They like that he doesn’t pay taxes. They like that he’s “…the least qualified, least respected person on the ship…” Eggers provides a beautifully sharp picture of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner in the person of the Captain’s daughter, who went nowhere without a doll by her side:
There is an uncomfortable closeness between the Captain and his daughter (“who was a solid 9”), and Eggers goes full force into it: “She was so smart…gorgeous and curvaceous, and so demure that when he thought of her, his mind went caterwauling into unsavory places.” The ships teachers are replaced by cops, the library replaced by television. Messages written on the lobby wipe-away board include: “IF YOU DIDN’T VOTE FOR ME, MAYBE YOU WILL BE KILLED.” Still, the people enjoyed themselves “…watching a lunatic speak his mind without filter.”
Near the book’s halfway point, the reader may find themselves wondering (like passengers on the ship) where Eggers plans to take us. The ship starts to take on new passengers because they “…were willing to take the jobs no one else wanted.” A rebellious faction amongst the passengers, calling themselves “The Kindly Mutineers”, surfaces to defend the new passengers from being periodically (albeit regularly) thrown overboard. There’s a sense of humorous brutality in the ruminations of our main character that might be more enjoyable if they weren’t so obvious:
Things get dark very quickly as Eggers brings us to the end of this narrative. The body counts pile up. Human corpses appear on dining tables, hollowed out and filled with guacamole for a tasty dip. We know from the start who the Captain is supposed to be, and the name of his ship is Glory. It isn’t that we should expect a clean ending or a hopeful resolution to this thinly-veiled story, but Eggers offers it in the end.
The books that had been removed from The Glory are found and returned. The Captain escapes during a mutiny in the final third of the story, later believed to be found, but it’s not certain. Eggers is smart enough to know he can’t bring his satirical Captain to justice because the real one is still flailing away in the real world. Trump’s impeachment has happened, a trial will follow, but justice (and Glory) may not ever be fully restored in its intended form.
We end The Captain and the Glory as we began, but perhaps a little more frustrated that a resolution could not be realistically achieved. Eggers knows this, and any reader insisting on “closure” will have to search elsewhere.
This is a quick book, with 19 illustrations from Nathaniel Russell. Like most of Eggers’ books and magazine publications, great care has been put into the tangible presence. The first edition jacket cover is orange, with a drawing of the hulking Captain’s back, in full uniform. Its mixture of picture book precision and sharp satire is a trademark of Eggers’ style that would be precious in other hands but works well in his.
The Fall 2020 US political landscape is uncertain. The Captain and the Glory’s long-term resonance is not guaranteed. The best satires rarely prove to come while we’re in the middle of the maelstrom. That said, it’s an important and skillfully stylized little book about dark times that grow progressively darker. It tears at the heart of its target while still maintaining a beautiful glimmer of hope in its final pages.