© Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos

The whole of Dave Eggers’s short, politically charged new novel is dialogue – a series of exchanges between thirtysomething Thomas and seven people he has kidnapped. There’s not much sense of how he conveyed them to his hide-out on a disused military base in California, or of what will happen to them. Instead the focus is on Thomas’s disillusionment and its causes.

Eggers has a nose for the zeitgeist and a weakness for didactic pronouncements. In the past two years he has published A Hologram for the King, a stark portrait of American economic decline, and The Circle, a schematic but unnerving thriller that conveyed a timely warning about the erosion of privacy in the digital age. In this shorter, more tightly controlled novel he continues his moralistic analysis of modern society and what he sees as the disintegration of its values.

The title comes from the mysterious visions of Zechariah, an Old Testament prophet who addressed the need for spiritual purity and the threat of apocalypse. Thomas has a distinctly Old Testament notion of right and wrong, yet he is confused. Wrestling with his feelings about America (one part pride, three parts disgust), he tries to fathom the links between his paltry personal life and the apparent crookedness of the authorities. He is particularly keen to probe the circumstances around the death of his childhood friend Don, who was shot 17 times after allegedly going on the rampage with a steak knife.

Thomas keeps those he has kidnapped in separate buildings and engages with them one by one, in each case trying to settle a score. Within these conversations the tone varies as Thomas switches between philosophical reasonableness, adolescent quibbling and fury, interspersed with rare flickers of irony, while his detainees are baffled about his motives, defensive, or cautiously penitent.

He starts with astronaut Kev, a college contemporary whom he and Don used to admire. The scaling back of the US space programme has denied Kev his chance to act out the fantasies of a whole generation raised on dreams of lunar colonies and interstellar exploration. As Thomas puts it, “He reaches the pinnacle of his field and they give him a punch in the gut.” Kev seems a symbol not only of America’s reduced economic might, but also of a national lack of curiosity. Why, Thomas wonders, is the US government adept at financing conflict overseas yet so shabby when it comes to funding the education of its own citizens?

Later Thomas moves on to his other captives. Each encounter prompts sour reflections on inequality, haphazardness and thwarted aspirations. He spars with a retired congressman, as well as his own mother, a policeman involved in the shooting of Don, and a hospital administrator who was on duty the night Don died. Taking a break from his inquisitions he grabs his seventh victim, a woman he meets on a nearby beach, and bombards her with bizarre declarations of love – “You’d live an honorable life with me. I’d be true to you always.”

The natural response to this is scepticism. “You’d keep me in some dungeon probably,” says the bemused object of Thomas’s affections, who at the time is shackled. In fact all of the captives are chained to posts, which means they don’t go anywhere – and neither does the novel. It’s not hard to spot the influence of Samuel Beckett (A Hologram for the King featured explicit references to Waiting for Godot), but Eggers doesn’t have Beckett’s facility for revitalising clichés.

While much of Your Fathers is crisply written, Thomas is a vehicle for some galumphing platitudes. He’s anxious about the lack of “grand human projects” and seems to imagine that his angst is blazingly original. At his worst he slips into the most prosaic sort of whining: “You don’t know what it’s like to be a man over thirty who’s never had anything happen to him,” he complains. And he revels in the discovery, after a lifetime of trying to insulate himself from suffering, that in fact “the horror is existence itself”.

The book’s strongest section is Thomas’s showdown with one of his old teachers, a genuinely creepy figure. Here his hypersensitivity to the nuances of other people’s speech becomes interestingly forensic. There are moments of dark musicality, and Eggers’s concern with the abuse of power is resonant. But the novel is hollowed out by its main character’s mixture of apocalyptic gloom and repetitive pedantry.

Photograph: Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos

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