Dave Eggers on Trump and the perception of truth in unscripted lies

The author discussed the story behind "The Captain and the Glory," today's confusing politics, and Disney cruises

By Ashlie D. Stevens
January 21, 2020 10:44PM (UTC)
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The Captain and the Glory: An Entertainment by Dave Eggers (Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images/Knopf)

"Any imbecile might decide on a certain Monday to become a captain, 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." This statement, one that is so reflective of this time in American history, is made in the opening pages of "The Captain and the Glory," a new book by author Dave Eggers. 

Eggers, who works in multiple genres from nonfiction to screenplay, turns his gaze towards the Trump administration through this new satirical novel. He writes of a petulant Captain — a man who is quick to toss his opposition overboard, makes nonsensical morning announcements about spiders that typically slip into observations about his penis, and steers the ship and its passengers further and further out to sea.   

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I spoke with Eggers about his time on the campaign trail in 2016, his experience with Trump supporters and their understanding of truth, and catharsis. 

You began covering the Trump era as a journalist back in August 2016 — when did you realize in your reporting process that there was an opportunity for a satirical novel like "The Captain and the Glory"? 

From the beginning, I was sort of toggling between reporting and trying to think of whether there was a way to capture this year, the madness of the time. Because what I keep finding is when I do cover rallies and when I cover immigration issues and the individual who have been affected adversely by those policies — that kind of work, I think, helps illuminate certain parts of this presidency and shine a light on people and families who have been struggling mightily due to his policies on immigration, asylum, and other related issues; there's something necessary about these individual stories, but they don't always get at the comical absurdity and the horror on a grand scale that I feel we've been going through. 

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So I just kept fiddling with ways to tell a larger story and capture the cartoonish madness and the loss of all moral compass and sanity. I think plenty of essays and columnists and late-night TV hosts have been doing a good job of reflecting on that every day but I thought that there might be a spot for an allegory or some sort of parable that kind of put it in stark relief. 

I think it was probably three, four months into his presidency when I started fiddling with this. I kept putting it away and then coming back to it and then finally about maybe eight months ago, I came back to it again and found that it still felt relevant. 

I'll continue to cover it as a journalist just because it helps me understand what's happening and it helps me understand the mindset of Trump supporters but at the same time,I think that there's space for, not just this book, but dozens more that help us see the moment through different lenses — whether it's a horror story, a novel of grand scope or a short satire. I see value in all those things because we've never quite lived though a moment where we were so confused by our compatriots. 

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There is this line that has stuck with me: "Because he was unscripted when he told lies — he was the most honest captain they'd ever known." There seems to be this narrative in the media that Trump supporters have had the wool pulled over their eyes when it comes to the veracity of Trump's claims — but when you were speaking with them, were they aware that he was lying? 

Yes. I really appreciate meeting Trump supporters because every last one of them I've had a good time talking to and I found a lot of common ground, and they have had surprisingly nuanced views. 

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They're very quick to acknowledge his flaws and frailties and fits, even. They don't care though. I think by and large, they're looking at the larger picture about judges on the Supreme Court and circuit courts. They're looking at tighter immigration laws. They're looking at winding down foreign wars. We're looking at economic effects, looking at somebody who is an outsider and isn't, you know, a perceived Washington sellout.

I think, to so many Trump supporters is that this guy, who they see as a successful billionaire and occupies the White House is still unvarnished, unscripted, telling it to them straight; and that means that it does not matter if he's telling the truth or a lie. It's telling it to them straight, which I know sounds like it's such a paradox. 

If he says, "Iran is building a nuclear program and is threatening to attack four different embassies," – now, if he says that in an unscripted way, not from notes, but in some tough tone, profanity-laced, crude way – that seems more truthful than if he were making some official statement. 

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For them, candor is something apart from truth and far more important than truth.

So, I've always been really captivated by stories that take place on boats — close quarters and kind of the liminality of being between two docking points. Why did you decide to set this weird, expansive story on a ship?

Well, I wanted to see all of the people to be more or less stuck with each other — and on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean, you really have nowhere to go. You have chosen to be on that ship, living cheek by jowl with all kinds of people, some of whom they have a lot in common with and some of whom they have less in common with, but many have made their peace with their neighbors because they can't just hop out and row away. 

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And with a parable or an allegory, or even any short story, limiting the cast of characters and limiting the setting, you can sort of get at the core truth of the matter without too much noise or distraction. 

I also like the idea of a cruise ship because it's so inherently silly; the thing about a cruise ship is that it's dorky. When you go on a cruise, you are buying into just the incredibly heightened dorkiness of every aspect — the uniforms and and the shuffleboard and the pool and the badminton and the Disney characters. 

But then because they are in the middle of the sea, you know what I perceived to be the Pacific Ocean, if someone is thrown overboard, there is kind of a heightened horror. There is no one else to turn to, they're very vulnerable. So, I like that paradox of the silliness and the vulnerability that a cruise ship arrived at and sometimes if you come across the right setting, the right moment in time, a lot of the writing is done for you. 

I'm guessing the subtitle of the book, "An Entertainment," is a nod to Graham Greene. If so, why did you want to reference his work? 

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The first impetus was I just happen to buy old books at library sales; I just bought six more outside the San Francisco Main Library the other day. I just like old unusual editions and strange covers and I'll buy books just for the title and I'll buy them for their craft. I found this old edition of Graham Greene's "The Comedian" that had an interesting cover. 

It's not one of his best, but I noticed the subtitle 'an entertainment.' He had done that in some of his books, but it's hard to tell which books he would apply that to because it wasn't that they were just the lighter books or the books that would become movies. It could be hard to parse why one would get the designation, but I just happened to read that in the two weeks before "The Captain and the Glory" went to press, and it just seemed right. Obviously the last third of the novel is full of horror and unimaginable suffering and cruelty and it gets very dark, and so with that in mind, giving it this sort of light-hearted subtitle seemed appropriate. 

In reading "The Captain and the Glory," I was carried between all these emotions — humor, horror, sadness. Was that indicative of how you felt during your writing process as you digested some of the real-world events that inspired this novel? 

Yeah, I think it is. You know, this book definitely comes more from the subconscious, as a lot of fiction does. Journalism, there's just no involvement of the subconscious there really because you're doing a service to what you saw, and you're trying to get right the experiences of people that you meet. 

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I honestly did not outline it. I didn't know what would happen next. I really was just like, letting that sort of natural subconscious storytelling mechanism that we all have take over. And that's why the writing was really cathartic for me and it wasn't until I finished that I sort of was able to look back, and kind of like you would analyze your dreams look back like, "Hmm, why did I do that?"

And, you know, the other part of the catharsis is being able to finish a narrative, I guess, living in this time where we don't know where it'll end — but being able to write an ending was so therapeutic, even if you know, falsely comforting for a moment. We do have to write a better story. That was what Obama said as he was leaving office, "We should tell a better story."

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

 


Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is a staff writer at Salon, specializing in culture.

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