The Parade by Dave Eggers – a review

The American writer Dave Eggers’s latest novel — an uncharacteristically pared-back, straight-faced parable of international development and reconstruction — sounds, in summary, almost like a maths problem, or the set-up to a bad joke. 

Two men, both foreign contractors, called only Four and Nine for reasons of security, arrive in a blisteringly hot, unnamed country recovering from a decades-long civil war, with the task of paving and painting a new road from the rural south to the capital in the north: a job that should take them 12 days and 230km.

They are complete opposites. It’s obvious they are not going to get on. Four is matter-of-fact, gruff, obedient to “the company”, determined to keep strictly to schedule. His nickname is “The Clock”. This is his 63rd assignment: “in eight years he had paved over seventy-five hundred kilometers on four continents”. 

Nine is flamboyant and wild: in Four’s judgment, “an agent of chaos”. It’s Nine’s first assignment. 

Four operates the paving machine, “the RS-90”, while Nine reconnoitres the road ahead on a quad bike. The paver advances painfully slowly, at four kilometres an hour, “not a pace tolerable to all” but congenial to Four, who sleeps near the machine in a tent each night, while Nine increasingly disappears and has adventures. 

We just know Nine is up to no good, and the all-too-straight line of the narrative is soon knotted by Eggers into a sequence of distressing and ethically complex scenes.

(Geoffrey Swaine/REX/Shutterstock)

Where are these two men from? In a nice touch by Eggers, we’re never told. And where could the unnamed country be? There are echoes of South Sudan, which Eggers wrote about masterfully in What is the What, but other places too, and it’s deliberately unfixed and imaginary. In another bold stroke, Eggers filters everything through Four’s narrow point of view. Four is blinkered, and spending so much fictional time with him is, at points, excruciating.

Eggers is asking important questions in The Parade — in length somewhere between a long short story and a novella — about intervention in other countries by foreigners. Ever since his first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, he has worried away at global issues, the huge disparities between industrialised and poorer countries, and the interplay between nationalities, and he clearly wanted to tackle them here more allegorically. 

Ghosts of other texts haunt the pages, and I was particularly reminded of V S Naipaul’s In a Free State, with its two arguing characters driving down a long, long road through another unnamed country.

Eggers’s title refers to a procession which the president, “known for political theatre”, is planning once the road is completed. And we are certainly kept guessing whether it will take place on time. 

The Parade is tightly written, carefully designed to wrongfoot preconceptions, and astute, as Eggers nearly always is. Its central flaw is the essentially abstract nature of its neat choreography of plot and character. This is an intensely gripping story that keeps on pulling towards a universality that, given the intrinsic vagueness of the setting, feels overly simplified and never quite rings true.

The Parade by Dave Eggers (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99)


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