An unsettling claim is made not even 10 pages into the scathing political satire “The Captain and the Glory: An Entertainment,” the Nov. 19 release from author and activist Dave Eggers.
“Any imbecile might decide on a certain Monday to become a captain,” Eggers writes, “and by Tuesday, with no qualifications whatsoever, that imbecile could take charge of a 300,000-ton vessel and the thousands of lives contained within.”
Sound (disconcertingly) familiar?
The funny, incisive allegory, set upon a shaking ship whose captain is quick to toss dissidents overboard, aims its unwavering gaze at the United States under President Donald Trump’s administration, drawing from Eggers’ experiences with Trump supporters he encountered while covering contentious campaign rallies in 2016. In the satire, Eggers, a literacy advocate and writer best known for his memoir, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” and for founding McSweeney’s publishing house, attempts to reconcile the insanity of that candidacy — and the presidency that followed — with the president’s supporters, with whom the author managed to find common ground.
Since the early 2000s, Eggers has written everything from nonfiction to children’s books and screenplays. Last year, he penned “The Monk of Mokha,” the true story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a young Yemeni American Muslim man raised in San Francisco who charts a new path in life after exploring the complex historical connection between coffee production in Yemen and the U.S.
When Eggers picked up the phone for our interview on a recent Saturday, he was enjoying a mellow morning in New York City. He’s been reading “Ethan Frome,” and still “in that weird state where [he is] halfway in the book.” Given his line of work, one could imagine Eggers is often in such a state. In that conversation, we discussed Eggers’ writing process, his encounters with Trump supporters, the language of satires and of politicians, the writers he admires, and of course, “The Captain and the Glory.” Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
I found “The Captain and the Glory” hilarious, caustic and horrifying. What appealed to you about satire in 2019?
I’m trying to figure out how to react to this era and its countless outrages. Reporting on various aspects of the Trump presidency has helped me understand why Trump got elected but also many of the horrifying impacts of his policies. When I go to Trump rallies, I go in with a sense of outrage and bewilderment and I come away thinking those supporters had relatively rational, or at least understandable, reasons for supporting Trump. But then I read about the degradations of the rule of law and the Constitution and the cruelty toward the most vulnerable, and I get outraged again. It seemed the way to capture the absurdity and the horror of this time was a story that transfers [that horror] from the real world to this allegorical world aboard a ship. I think satire can clarify things by reducing the cast of characters, shrinking the setting, and putting things in starker and clearer terms. [Satire] gets at truth that I think naturalistic fiction cannot. It gives you that power of laughter over horror; if you can temporarily experience that catharsis of laughing at something that’s so horrible and absurd, then it defangs that power and that horror in a way.
You write, “When these previous captains spoke at all, they had expressed themselves with quiet reserve and dignity. … though, this new captain was candid and unvarnished. And … because he was unscripted when he told lies — he was the most honest captain they’d ever known.” Why is the language of politicians important?
I ran into two Trump supporters [after a confrontation following a rally in Phoenix]. I asked what they saw in Trump and they said, “Well he’s so honest, he just tells it like it is.” I got them to admit that the things he says aren’t true, but the way he says those untruths is so unvarnished that they’re true again in a way. It was this pretzel-like logic, but it explained to me that he could say anything in an off-the-cuff, candid way, and because of that tone, it becomes more true-sounding. As soon as Trump starts reading from the script at a rally, everyone leaves. They want the street-corner jokester. They’re listening to the guy that sounds like their uncle talking drunkenly at Thanksgiving — and that sounds to them like the truth.
As far as politicians, we had eight years of eloquence with President Obama. I always thought people appreciated his calm, his reserve and the way he was so careful about what he said, knowing how important it was coming from the White House. It’s evidently not that important to tens of millions of people, a shock that I still haven’t gotten over. I think we should add an amendment to the Constitution, or a footnote to the requirements of the presidency, some reminder of how important the language coming out of the president’s mouth is. It’s not OK to tweet misspelled nonsense at 6 in the morning.
You have written fiction, nonfiction, books for young readers and more. Could you talk a bit about your approach to each?
I always think the story dictates the form and that the right form will arrive and announce itself — and will be beyond debate. In this case, I’ve been writing journalism about this era for a while. My last book, “The Monk of Mokha,” drew from two years of interviews with [Alkhanshali]. There was about a year of wandering blindly in the forest trying to figure out the form and when it arrives, everything falls into place. If you don’t know the shape of the book before you begin, it can be trying and bewildering to have it all in your head without the vessel to put it in.
Do you think about an audience as you write? Tell me about the subtitle, “An Entertainment.”
I was writing a story that I hoped people would read and actually be able to laugh a bit, but it is full of horror, too, so that subhead felt like a joke within a joke. This one more than anything I wrote for me. I was writing really in an untethered way, and I think satire has to be unhinged, free from constraints of tastes and even logic, sometimes, to get at the most savage truths. You have to be willing to follow the story into its darkest corners and to allow humor and rage to coexist. On a superficial level, Trump behaves clownishly and it’s absurd that the chief executive cannot spell, writes in all caps and makes threats to other countries, domestic generals and women who dare criticize him. At the same time, there are people dying who were promised shelter and salvation here. His policies have inflicted so much real-world suffering. It seems like the only way to get that right is through satire, where you can have those two things coexist.
Reading the book is like being on a boat, being thrown from one emotion to the next. Was the experience of writing it similar? And why did you set it at sea?
In San Francisco, you’re surrounded by water, so it was subliminally suggested to set the book on a ship. The floating-nation cruise ship was such a happy solution: a limited number of characters, underscoring the fact they’re stuck with each other. If you’re on a boat, you really have to coexist in close quarters, and I liked the idea of people that have been together for generations aboard a place where there isn’t any easy way off. It wasn’t until this captain that every minor difference in these people of endlessly varied backgrounds was exploited and heightened.
Two images that have stuck with me: the Captain hiding under his bed, convinced by a voice coming through a vent that spiders would be his ultimate demise; and how the Captain sends messages to the passengers about “spiders, his penis, and the enemies in the engine room” in the mornings, then throws violent tantrums in the afternoons. These passages are funny and horrifying but also familiar. Was one reason for writing this book to point out that we should all stay vigilant and not accept the current realities as normal?
Exactly. Every day, we wake up and there’s something in the news that has absolutely no precedent in modern American history. There are a countless number of impeachable offenses and reasons why Trump is unfit, but in some way, we’ve become so numb to the offenses. But between the sheer ubiquity and endlessness of the offenses and the fact that the business of the country continues regardless of his behavior, there’s this cumulative effect of normalization. We’re in this weird, endless loop of outrage, catatonia, despair, limited action — and by the end of that cycle, we’re back to thinking it can’t get worse, and we wake up in the morning and it gets worse again. It will take years to digest and look back on how bad and how disgusting the time was because we’ve been unable to pause and write all this down. The beauty of a book in the middle of a presidency is that at least this book has an end. And it reminds us that we will get through, we will restore ourselves to the ideals that this country was based on, has lived with and has been guided by for centuries. We will find our way back to our better selves.
“The Captain and the Glory” by Dave Eggers, Knopf, 128 pp., $15.95