Anyone familiar with George Orwell’s Animal Farm will appreciate how satire shifts the reader one remove away from a subject to gain a better appreciate of that subject. The farm’s animals, bitingly depicted by Orwell, illuminated the political landscape of the Stalinist era — and did so at least as well as an analytical history. So it is with Dave Eggers’ dazzling The Captain and the Glory, a short novella in which a hapless passenger of the good ship Glory is elected to be its Captain. The words ‘America’ and ‘Trump’ are never used, but no reader can be left in doubt that this is exactly what this wittily tragic tale is indeed about
We must give thanks that, along with Ian McEwan’s The Cockroach (this site, new window), two of the two countries’ finest writers have chosen the format of satirical novella to help us better see where we all are — and in this telling, it’s not a happy place.
The delights of this tale arrive in short chapters and it would be crass to spoil the fun, so I’ll pull out only a few examples to entice you to track this book down. The ship of state is the guiding metaphor which floats ‘the great ship Glory’. Aboard her, as her dignified captain is due for retirement, is a motley collection of murderers, patsies, knee-breakers and racketeers. Electing a new captain falls to this bunch, who fall in behind ‘the guy who sold cheap souvenirs near the putt-putt golf course’ and ‘who said pretty much anything that popped into his head’. Bit by bit, the passengers mulled the idea that this guy should become the Glory’s next captain.
The idea of shaking things up—anything from one’s toothpaste to one’s shoes—held a certain inherent appeal to most of the ship’s citizens. To them, shaking things up held the promise, however irrational and unproven, that everything shaken up, or tossed randomly into the air, might come down better. Somehow in the flying and falling, steel might become gold, sadness might become triumph, what had been good might become great. (p.8)
The frenzy thus generated results in a chant of “Shake things up! Shake things up!”, masterfully reminiscent of another chant heard loud and clear throughout 2016, and swiftly after:
To prove they were all equal, they should, the logic followed, be led by a known moron. (p.9)
So it came to pass that the passengers and crew of the Glory elected ‘the least qualified, the least respected person on the ship’ to be their new captain.
Events inexorably lead to chaos — written in 2019, readers who have stayed out of the proverbial cave will already know the general direction of travel — first on board the ship then across the ocean on which the Glory sails. What makes the telling of the tale worth the reading is the choice of correlatives. The list is long: the Captain’s perverted approach to his own daughter, the “boy-doll” that she carries around that has “vacant eyes”, and the Captain’s nocturnal resentments that stew and fester — such as those against “all the women who did not swoon when he pushed his genitals at them in elevators”. Later in the book, in their own ships, are the Pale One and the Man So Soft, instantly recognisable when first encountered. All these — and more — are keenly-targeted. Yet the sharpest parallel between life on board the Glory and the demented reality of the here and now that the book takes us away from is the voice is the vent. Burdened by innumerable inadequacies, the Captain retires to his cabin each night. Frit by a spider that dangles above his bunk, he eventually squeezes into the claustrophobic darkness under it. In this infantile posture, he hears a voice that comes from the vent on the wall next to the bed which proceeds to pour poison in the Captain’s ear, and which fuels his prejudices and vendettas.
The Captain listened, rapt, as the voice in the vent went on, listing the many things there were to fear and hate and the various ways the world not-under-the-bed was terrifying and perilous. The Captain felt at last that someone was expressing his innermost thoughts. (p.23)
In a follow-up master-stroke, the next morning passengers find that the cafeteria’s wipe-away board, normally listing the day’s weather or menus, is crammed with punchy profanities and threats written in a childish script. Thus the nocturnal Fox TV input results in the Twitteroid output that us landlubbers have become accustomed to since the orange Captain was elected. (A round of applause to the book’s cover design. No other book would use such a radioactive orange colour.)
This is a cathartic read. Dare we hope that there will be an even greater cathartic plank wall after November 3rd?