If I told you to read a story about two guys paving a road together, you’d probably decline. But if I told you it was a modern day parable, an easy quick read, and written by the guy who wrote two books that turned into movies starring Tom Hanks, ok, maybe you’d pick it up.
Author Dave Eggers is an absurdly driven social novel writer. Every book he’s written asks a question—several questions, really—about modern life, global politics, the limits of technology, and what you do with yourself when nothing in the world makes sense, even though you, meaning well, meaning so well, feel like it should all just go at least as well as you imagine. After having written a memoir about taking care of his brother while trying to start an activist magazine, then a breakout novel about two guys trying to give away a boatload of money to a good cause, and a string of other novels that resonate with issues like the financial crisis, the Facebook boom, and Hurricane Katrina, he goes and writes a short allegory about two road pavers. I had to pick it up.
“Without war and its waste, you would not be here.”
A story that has you wondering where it will go, and it could go anywhere from Prince Avalanche to The Last King of Scotland. In a tale that’s a little bit Nietzsche, a little bit Zimyatin, a little bit Orwell, and a little bit Coatzee, Eggers introduces us to two men who could not be any more opposite one another. “Four” is tasked with paving a road in a faraway country, and wants it done as soon as possible. “Nine” is the man charged with clearing the path for the road, and wants to experience the country as freely as possible. The country itself, which could be any country with palm trees that just ended a civil war, is a nebulous setting in which the building of this great road will function as a unification of the North and the South. How best to get it done on time for the big unification parade?
These are the basic players and their conflict. Their company paves roads on a deadline. It’s a simple job, but it’s impossible not to get involved in the local life. While one man wants to adhere to a strict code of ignoring everything around him, the other wants to carelessly immerse himself in the food, the women, the play, and even some of the favors for favors. Who do you like (or dislike) more?
And so a kind of battle ensues about conflict intervention. Or approaches to labor. Or global trade. Or justice and equality. Or local and international politics. Or economics and warfare.
“It’s like a parade before the real parade. This is one of hope. A procession of longing.”
But at the heart of the story is a man committed to following protocol forced into an unpredictable situation with a man committed to following his heart. As the task progresses, each of the men is challenged by the inevitable consequences of their approach. What if your way of doing things goes wrong? All along the way we encounter a dozen classic scenarios we have seen in many stories about first world protagonists eager to help the third world—begging, bribery, food poisoning, possible kidnapping. The moral complexity is such that neither character is too easy to like or dislike, and you’re waiting to see who will be proven right in the end.
By the end, you will find that, if you feel passionate about the story, you yourself fall one of two camps:
“This novel is one of the most important fables of our time, written in such a way as to strip away all our prejudices”
“This novel is a hopeless smirk at any effort to do good in the world, and full of stereotypes.”
There is a twist. And while the twist—which I will not reveal—does heap a spoonful of cynicism into the message, it is no less real than the questions the author is asking us. Not just “how do we best do good in the world,” but “how do we even begin to define what is good in the world”?
We all have values, and we all have liabilities. I think the truth Eggers is trying to get us to accept is that, not only are they interrelated, but sometimes we can be so focused on either that we fail to see the bigger picture. You share more values with other people than you would like to imagine. So the question is this: When you are ignited by purpose, what is paramount to helping others?