by Dave Eggers
Pub. Date: September 2002
Can Dave Eggers write fiction? That's what you really want to know, isn't it?
Eggers wrote the nonfiction book of a generation with "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" in 2001, and now it's time to see whether he's Boston - a one-great-work mainstream phenomenon - or if he's Radiohead, a distinctly original voice for the deep-thinking, question-all-things-obvious subculture of a generation.
With the novel "You Shall Know Our Velocity," Eggers lands somewhere in between, in a space occupied by the likes of They Might Be Giants or Cake, a place where a generation can point to prove it is more clever, more original and more hilarious than the somber, buttoned-down generations that preceded, but that after a while is like eating too much cake frosting.
Just as AHWOSG (as book titles are acronymed in McSweeneyLand) plumbed the depths of Eggers' grief and delivered mesmerizing inner dialogue, "You Shall Know Our Velocity" at its best is a deep exploration of its narrator Will Chmlielewski's grief over the death of his friend Jack. At its best, we swim through Will's head, and through a tedious trip around the world, we get scenes that are uniquely Eggers and a delightfully drawn traveling companion, named Hand, who makes you laugh out loud.
The problem is, the story isn't very good. Eggers fails to credibly build the foundation of the story; the two major pillars this story rests on are so flimsy, it's hard to really care.
First, we're to believe Will is so despondent over the senseless death of his friend Jack in a traffic accident that he needs this frenetic, one-week trip around the world to get free of the haunting movies in his head. Yet the character of Jack is so skimpily developed that, although you'll really want to care, a part of you will think, "Will, you pathetic pantywaist, just get over it."
Second, we're to believe that Will, who sands floors and restores ceilings for a living, feels he is not worthy of an $80,000 windfall, the product of a light bulb company using as its logo an image of Will screwing in a light bulb. Why Will feels the need to go around the world giving away $32,000 in foreign countries is, well, let's just say this ain't "The Grapes of Wrath"; in fact, it may be the diametrical, spoiled-suburban-kid opposite of (if Steinbeck had been a little hipper) TGOW, and that's why Eggers' first novel is a small work.
This book feels like a release for Eggers, a release from having earned a lot of money from a nonfiction work so hard and so true, that the windfall must have felt dirty and ill-gotten. And it feels like the release of writer weary of book tours; he has Will signing hundreds of travelers checks as he travels around the world until he is sick of his own name. I saw Eggers talk at Washington University in St. Louis, as the AHWOSG phenomenon was subsiding, and he gave away his full honorarium in $5 bills to each member of the audience in Graham Chapel. He also pulled five freshmen on stage and had them write haikus - the rule: it must start with the words "Condeleeza Rice" - while Eggers' writer friend played guitar.
Afterward, an older, smartly dressed university administrator, slightly aghast and visibly shaken, said to her colleague, "Well, that certainly was different now, wasn't it?"
You're damn right, it was. It wasn't John Updike up there in suit and tie, standing behind a lectern and playing the sophisticate. When I saw Updike speak, the first question from the students wasn't, as it was for Eggers, "Dave, a bunch of us want to know if you'll come out with us tonight for beers?"
And that's why Eggers, even though he'll someday look back at this first novel and cringe, is worth reading. He tries shit. He's original and different (he creates the only character in literature who ever dies on the front cover of a book), and the question for you and your $22 is whether you can forgive him a dragging plotline and be content with a few laughs and the trademark inner dialogue that Eggers owns.
Will's mind is a central character in the novel. Here's Will: "My mind, I know, I can prove, hovers on hummingbird wings. It hovers and it churns. And when it's operating at full thrust, the churning does not stop. The machines do not rest, the systems rarely cool. And while I can forget anything of importance - this is why people tell me secrets - my mind has an uncanny knack for organization when it comes to pain. Nothing tormenting is lost, never even diminished in color or intensity or quality of sound. They were filed near the front." The descriptions of the librarians in Will's mind bringing him the files on Jack's death are Eggers on fire, pure and simple, in sentences that rip you through his emotion like the most ass-kicking roller coaster you've ever ridden.
Hand wins all prizes for best supporting actor. He is the self-assured friend who knows unimaginable, trivial facts, who has just enough knowledge and blind self-assurance to fake his way through any new situation, and Eggers has a ball with him. Eggers plunks him down in places like Senegal (they end up there because, as Will says, "it was windy in Greenland"), Morocco, Estonia and Latvia, and Hand tries to connect with the natives by breaking down his English and talking a little slower.
Here's Hand explaining why he has given away money to one child but not to the child's brother: "You know why we gave to your brother three hundred of the dollars American? Because he didn't ask for it. You, you are crass - you know of this word, crass? - so no money you have coming." In another scene, Will and Hand tape a pouch of money to a donkey and include a note that says, "HERE I AM. ROCK YOU LIKE A HURRICANE."
Those who have been waiting for some new Eggers since the day they finished the final page of AHWOSG, those anxious enough to check the McSweeney's site periodically for word of more Eggers, will be glad for another fix. Those looking for a rich novel, with rich characters and big meaning, likely will be disappointed, frustrated that a great talent still has some distance to travel before mastering the novel.