Saturday, April 10, 2010

Review: You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers

One of the really great thing about book blogs is that they can talk about books in ways mainstream publications really can't. We can talk about them familiarly, irreverently, gushingly, and idiosyncratically. We can also, and this is maybe the biggest difference, talk about them waaaaaaaaay after they're current. Mainstream publications have to cover what's new; well. maybe they don't have to, but they do. But the fact of the matter is that there isn't something interesting published every week. 

For example, I was browsing the shelves at the Strand the other day and ran across Dave Egger's Zeitoun. The Ape has been looking forward to reading it, but it's not out in paperback yet and for some reason I want to read it in paperback (I'm getting a little tired of shoving hardbacks in my bag and dragging all over tarnation). Anyway, thinking about Eggers reminded me how much I like one of his earlier books, You Shall Know Our Velocity! and I've spend a few minutes remembering what I liked about it. So here's a review....6 years after its original publication.

I don't know Dave Eggers. Don't know what he looks like, don't know what he sounds like, heck, I don't even read McSweeney's. I do know that he's sold a shitload of books and that he's a literary maverick of some sort (a lesser breed of maverick, the literary kind, but they do exist).

I know a little more about Dave Eggers as a writer. His first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, demonstrated a keen, flexible wit that tempered the potentially maudlin story of a young man taking care of his younger brother after their parents' death. And while that book is a fine achievement, especially the first half, it seemed a bit of a fastball-down-the-middle for Mr. Eggers. It was, after all, his story. Furthermore, the somber backdrop allowed him to perform his dervish-like literary flourishes without the danger of floating off into the same lighter-than-air domain inhabited by The New Yorker's "Shouts and Murmurs" section.
Eggers has selected a far more difficult task this go-round, and perhaps the most difficult task for any writer of fiction. For, despite a premise that would feel more at home in an undergraduate writing seminar, You Shall Know Our Velocity! is ultimately about the nature, and function, of story-telling itself. 

Most of the reviews I have seen of this book don't get much farther than laying out the premise (the narrator Will and his friend Hand + 7 days + 32k to give away + around the world) but, in my view, the intrigue of the plot device is more misdirection than meaning. The real narrative tension doesn't come until about two-thirds the way through when Hand provides an epilogue to the story right in the middle of the main action. Hand has several bones to pick; the most important of them is that their friend, whose death is the emotional springboard for their globe-circling, never existed. He goes on to quibble with his own portrayal and to note that Will's mother was dead before the time of the trip, though Will has created several extended phone conversations with her while they are abroad. 

I think the particulars of Hand's interlude are less interesting than the intellectual puzzle Eggers's constructs-a fictional character, interrupting a fiction (though framed as a first-person travel narrative) to remedy the factual lapses in the narrative. Peculiar territory indeed. When Will's narrative resumes, the texture of the book seems strangely altered. Are we to believe Hand? Does it matter? If so, why? If not, why not? I found this moment of re-entry to the most satisfying moment of the novel and its provocations have stayed with me quite strongly. This one moment is enough for me, though I would be remiss not to mention some of the problems that it causes. For one, the narrative leading up to the interlude is strangely uninteresting considering that Eggers's literary talents seem well-suited to turn the adventures of continent-hopping 20-somethings into more than is presented here. Indeed, Will and Hand spend most of their time waiting to go somewhere else, and most of the encounters with their beneficiaries are either anonymous or brief. 
Will's grief for Jack is likewise fairly colorless and non-specific; we get no real sense of who Jack was and thus it is difficult to feel the weight of the loss that Will feels. Hand suggests that Jack is an avatar for Will's mother, and this might explain why Jack's absence is so featureless (though not why Will chooses to change the location of his pain). While Will's displacement of grief, and its subsequent effect on the emotional center of the book may very well be intentional, Eggers's frustrating and inconsistent portrayal of Will and Hand is a real problem. Most of this frustration stems from Eggers's use of unspoken, imagined conversations between Will and Hand:

--I brought this all upon us Hand.
--Don't start.
--We beat up kids. We pushed them down ravines. We ran by the retarded girl, Jenny Ferguson, and we tore her dress on purpose. Remember that, asshole? We did that and this is retribution. There is balance. Everything lives is perfect Newtonian opposition.
--You are fucked.
-- I will have more coming. I acted with unprovoked
aggression and now it is enacted upon me I have done other
things. Things you don't know about

These non-conversations perhaps are intended to capture the experience of being in contact without speaking, but replace any and all serious conversation between the two. This technique would be more effective in more limited use, and with a more limited narrative function.

Another source of consternation is Will and Hand's apparently fluctuating knowledge of the world. One of the principal pleasures of the book is watching Will and Hand encounter a world that resists their conception of it: "I knew nothing, basically, but couldn't bear the fact of the nations of the world, I had only ill-formed collages of social studies textbooks and quickly flipped travel magazines." And yet, they often make massive generalizations about the world like "rural poverty is always incongruous, amid all this space and air, these crippled homes, all half-broken, most without roofs, standing on this gorgeous, lush farmland." This kind of statement is surprising as it comes well into the novel, after Will and Hand have been routinely reminded that their worldviews are not only narrow, but often dead wrong. My diagnosis here is that this inconsistency is a product of Eggers writing characters who know significantly less about the world than he does, leaving little room for his own more sophisticated ideas and experience. A prime example is when Hand has sequestered himself in New Zealand to write his epilogue and is able to produce the following quotation from memory: "To string incongruities, and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American Art." This is an impressive display from someone who "is a scientist, really."

This seems an understandable, perhaps even expected, failing in the first long work of fiction by someone with such a distinctive literary presence. The third person would probably allow Eggers to write people who are not him and not have to suppress his undeniably provocative sensibilities. Ultimately, the questions about the value of fiction that Eggers is able to raise in the last section of the novel elevate the mildly interesting story into a kind of meditation on the novelist's task. In a way, You Shall Know Our Velocity! is the yin to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius's yang. Where A.H.W.O.S.G was a joy to read but left little mark, Y.S.K.O.V's pleasures begin after the final page has been turned.