US writer Dave Eggers poses during the 5th edition of the Rome literature festival. Alessia Paradisi/TNS
The central image in Dave Eggers’s latest novel, 'The Parade,' is a gleaming road in the process of completion. Designed to connect the urban north and rural south of an unnamed, recently devastated Middle Eastern country, its end will be marked by a grand parade to be led by a victorious general, and heralding, apparently, a new era of peace and prosperity.
It symbolises modernity, as the sleek tarmacking machine speeds forwards, levelling and connecting; and yet it also demonstrates the complex relationships between stasis and movement, between east and west, between corporations, indigenous peoples and political parties.
In a sense, the new road is, narratively speaking, the plot itself: always moving forwards, stymied at various points, and ending in a manner at once familiar and unexpected. Essentially, 'The Parade' is a duel between the two nameless male protagonists, Four and Nine, its only purpose the completion of the highway.
The American construction company, worth billions of dollars, doesn’t allow its employees to know too much about each other: it might get in the way of the job, and therefore profit. This lack of proper names for people and country lends the work a fable-like quality.
This is also a novel about conflicting approaches to life and work. On the one hand, there is Four, whose nickname is “the Clock” because he always does everything to the minute. He is incapable of acting outside of regulations, and only wants to finish his task exactly on time so that the parade can go ahead, and he can get paid and go home to his family. He is the Protestant Work Ethic personified.
On the other hand, there is Nine. Long-haired, millennial, and a bit of a goofball, he sleeps with local women, talks, against protocol, to members of various local tribes, and generally acts, in Four’s terms, as an “agent of chaos.” Riding on his quad bike with a purple scarf round his neck, he’s a stereotypical western kid trying to find meaning in what he views as other.
'The Parade' has a light touch, but it’s stylish and slick, and it leaves us pondering the rights and wrongs of progress and intervention. A road brings medicine, but it also bears armies.
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