“The Parade,” the new novel from Dave Eggers, is about progress; it is a subtle contemplation of the dire effect that progress can have on its surroundings. This is all tied up in a plot that is worthy of, say, an absurdist like Samuel Beckett.
If there is one strand that unmistakably imbues the works of Dave Eggers, it is attempts at new beginnings, at starting over. Think the college senior who inherits his 8-year-old brother after the deaths of their parents in the memoir “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.”Think the computer expert trapped at the nefarious Apple-like conglomerate in the novel “The Circle.”Think the suddenly single mother and her kids on an Alaskan road trip in Eggers’ last novel, “Heroes of the Frontier.”And, most unquestionably, think of the young man on the fringes of the coffee industry in Eggers’ most recent work, the biographical “The Monk of Mokha.”
The plot of “The Parade” seems almost too simple. In an undisclosed country, a large corporation pays two men, neither named, to “pave and paint 230 kilometers of a two-lane roadway, uniting the country’s rural south to the country’s capital in the urban north.” The two men have 12 days to complete the work in order to comfortably stay ahead of the rainy season.
As soon as it is completed, there will be a parade on the road, a parade led by the country’s president. With extra work hours already built into the paving plans, chances for finishing the project on time are very good.
Well, good enough, perhaps. The country, it turns out, is “a nation recovering from years of civil war, riddled with corruption and burdened now by a new and lawless government.” Then there are all those black bags along the old roadways through the country, bags filled with “the waste of war.”
And there is, of course, the human factor. Just as Eggers gives the country no name, essentially neither does he name either of the workers: the company they work for prefers it that way.
The man named “Four” — called “The Clock” because of his efficiency at meeting deadlines at all costs — obeys strict protocol. The road is his 63rd assignment. All previous assignments were dispatched quickly and efficiently, for Four believes in no variance from what the company “strongly discouraged.” His only weakness? “Thinking a solution could come through quick, blunt force” as he steers one paving module after another through the war-ravaged landscapes.
The man named “Nine” is given specific characteristics. We are told he has dark eyes, a cleft chin and full, womanly lips. He obeys no protocol. The road is his first assignment. He is to drive the advance vehicle and look for — and remove — obstructions in the road. Nine, however, finds it increasingly difficult to remain on the road. He is given to sampling all local wares, from foodstuffs and liquors to women. His weakness? “All rationality was devoured within him.”
And then Nine takes sick. And then, in a shattering climax, both men are confronted with the absolute absurdity of the paths they each have taken, as well as the absolute absurdity of the road they have been hired to pave.
“The Parade” is a horror story for our times. It is as cautionary and politically astute as any of the books by Dave Eggers that have preceded it. It is restrained in its admonitions and its language, even as it is profoundly perceptive in its assessments of the absurdity of the self-serving stabs at order that we humans continue to make in the name of creating a better world, especially through war and its aftershocks.
Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.