The Parade

Dave Eggers

Hamish Hamilton


Review by Nick Major

Dave Eggers likes to throw his characters into bizarre situations, often in places far away from home. In A Hologram for the King (2012), an American business consultant called Alan Clay is flown to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to meet King Abdullah. His employer is hoping to win the IT infrastructure contract for a new city. When Clay arrives, however, the King is strangely absent. In Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? (2014), a Nasa astronaut wakes up to find himself tied to a post in an abandoned military base in California; and in Heroes of the Frontier (2016), Eggers sends his protagonist into the wilds of Alaska.

At first glance, The Parade doesn’t seem so dramatic. After all, it’s about paving a road. But all roads lead somewhere. This one takes its two protagonists through an unnamed country recovering from civil war. “Everything around them was standard for a developing country after a war. The soda bottles full of diesel, lined up on the roadside and sold by shrunken grandmothers. The stray dogs and children holding babies. The diagonal plumes of faraway fires. The spent rifle shells. The teenagers wearing mirrored sunglasses and carrying unloaded AKs.” It is territory Eggers knows something about. His last book, which has the superb title The Monk of Mokha, told the true story of a coffee merchant driving through war-torn Yemen.

The protagonists here are called Four and Nine. Their employer is a private company. Four and Nine are tasked with pacing the road from the rural south to the urban north in time for a presidential parade. “The President, known for political theatre, had planned the parade to begin the moment the road was completed. The procession would leave the capital and travel south, symbolizing an end to decades of civil war and the beginning of the peace and prosperity the road would make possible.” Yet, our protagonists are so named because “in the past, in other nations, the company’s employees had been ransomed and killed. The kidnappers went first for their quarry’s company, then family, then nation. But without passports or names, men like Four and Nine were anonymous and of little value.”

Re-reading passages like these after finishing the novel, one realises how much clever and ironic groundwork Eggers lays down to prepare us for the final grotesque absurdity of the story. There are ominous warning signs that something will go wrong – the armoury Four and Nine carry with them, for a start. Yet the novel is also a compelling character study of two people who are polar opposites. For large sections, the drama stems from their incompatibility. Four – nicknamed The Clock – is an efficient bore. His sole aim is to abide by “company protocol.” Hence, when Nine drives past him Four's first thought is that his co-worker is not “wearing his helmet, and his arms were exposed in a region known for malaria.”

Nine, on the other hand, is wild, carefree, and a philanderer. He couldn’t give a hoot about his employer and spends much of his time meeting with the local people, and picking up women. The story is told from Four’s perspective. It is only through Nine that we learn anything about the country. Halfway through their trip Nine does - rather predictably - become gravely ill. Four has an opportunity to drive off with some locals and seek medical help, except “leaving the RS-90 unattended by company staff was strictly prohibited…”

In literature, road trips are often tropes for a character’s personal growth and worldly understanding. The Parade, however, is primarily about naivety and ignorance. During one telling scene, Four explains to Nine how much the road means to people. Nine – in Four’s eyes – becomes “enlightened in real time. He seemed to finally square his actions with how they might affect the people he claimed to take so much pride in helping.” Later, Four will realise how he too has “helped” the population.

Eggers is a very moral writer. There are a few places in this novel when he could have descended into didacticism, but thankfully he avoids it. Like Muriel Spark, for instance, he understands that actions have consequences, however unintended. No matter what Four and Nine do, their actions are predestined to end in horror. As such, their general ignorance of the country is as complete as ours. Appositely, Eggers conveys all this this in tidy spare prose. At under 200 pages, this is one of his shorter novels. It is refreshing to read a writer who varies his writing approach with each new book. It shows that he’s a storyteller who thinks deeply about the best way to tell a story, not just the story itself. It’s a formal restlessness that has paid dividends in the past, and it’s done so again.