As interesting as the work of Dave Eggers has been (and his Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, for all its overbearing artifice, is a great book on a lot of levels), the person may be more so. This drives him nuts. Because Eggers – how to say this without making him mad? – has a thing about control. Where Jonathan Franzen let slip the slightest of grimaces when Oprah embraced him, Eggers has flipped the bird at the entire publishing Establishment, putting out his new book, You Shall Know Our Velocity, on his own McSweeney’s imprint and distributing it to independent bookstores.
When fortress Eggers is attacked, as when David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times had the temerity to analyze his marketing efforts, or when journalists tried to pry into the suicide of his sister, Beth, last year (who was, yes, a private person, but also a major character in a best-selling memoir), the Eggers faithful are mobilized, ambushes are laid, fierce countermeasures planned. Eggers has deep contempt for the empty center of the culture, but he also has contempt for that contempt (and he has contempt for those who have contempt for his contempt), and it’s that tight knot of conflict, these forces tugging at each other, that makes him so compelling (and exasperating).
Eggers’s audacity – and pugnacity – recalls that of Norman Mailer, but where Mailer forced himself into the front ranks at a few marches, Eggers is a bona fide leader, the president – actually, the dictator, if not the cult leader – of an alternative republic of his own devising. When he runs for mayor, he’ll win.
You Shall Know Our Velocity is ostentatious in its humility, its covers of aggressively unprocessed oatmeal-colored cardboard, the title embossed on its black cloth binding, with the text beginning on the front cover. Master marketer that he is, Eggers has written a story that can be described in a sentence: Two young Americans, Will and Hand, travel around the world in a week, giving away to random strangers $32,000 Will had received because his image had been used in an ad. But the promise (he keeps it, pretty much) of Hollywood hilarity – ugly Americans abroad – is anchored by an impacted architecture of guilt and grief. Reading it, you keep thinking of MTV’s Jackass, as scripted by Samuel Beckett.
Laconic, brooding Will, the novel’s first-person narrator, is literally an ugly American. His face is covered with scabs, the result of a beating incurred in a storage locker where he and Hand had gone to pick up the effects of their childhood friend Jack, who’d been killed in a gruesome, pointless car wreck (an obsessively careful driver, his car was caught from behind and run over by a speeding semi). The events charge Will with guilt and rage (added to the guilt he feels over being a bully in high school). He wants to make amends, to find a way to move forward.
Hand is a jackass, a happy-go-lucky Ed Norton (of The Honeymooners) figure with the finest education the Internet can provide. Nothing that comes out of his mouth – and much does – is adequately sourced. He’s an unwitting folklorist, a collector and expounder of hipster philosophy, barroom trivia, and pseudoscience. He loves to confuse the people they encounter, making fun of their accents in his English-as-a-second-language. “Here is the location of the music that is live?” he tells one cabdriver. “I always am thinking Estonia is the most great of the Baltic nations,” he says later. He’s not a tourist; he’s the show.
The trip bogs down before it begins. Greenland (too much wind) and the Gambia (no visas; a car that wouldn’t start) are swiftly crossed off their itinerary. The two are continually frustrated by the ticket-counter attendants who refuse to believe that they have no specific destination, by their need for sleep, by the inevitable friction of travel. Rubes that they are, this surprises them. Previously, says Will, he had thought that “all other nations were huddled together, trading information and commiserating, like smokers outside a building.”
Exploring the globe, they discover a world of airports, taxicabs, strip bars, and hotel rooms. Thinks Will, with typically significant banality: “Every given landscape, I finally realized, existed somewhere in the U.S.”
Will and Hand put on USA hair shirts, convert themselves into human wallets. Their experience of the Other is pretty much limited to the confused looks of the people they give money to. They’re pilgrims doing penance for their American privilege; the book is a comedy of globalization. They go voyaging to save the world and find themselves – surprise, surprise, surprise, as Gomer Pyle liked to say – back on the couch, in the TV room. It’s an equation that even danger doesn’t change. Heading down a street in Senegal with an unwelcome passenger in the back of the car, they worry they’re about to be murdered, when Janet Jackson comes on the radio, “asking what we had done for her as of late.”
Eggers has a skateboarder’s fascination with half-built landscapes, roadsides, the interstices of the built world. Finding beauty in these places requires imagination, but if you have it, the world isn’t ruined at all. The novel’s grinding, at times monotonous rock and roll of plane trips and hotel rooms and (often hilarious) bickering about how to give the money away (Tape it to the side of a house? To the side of a donkey? Bury it and make a treasure map?) is punctuated by surprising, elegant lyrics: similes, epiphanies, gorgeous writing. An old woman’s hand resembles “a small leather bag full of delicate tools”; the blue of the sea is “a klieg light pushing through a gel of cyan.”
Will shares Eggers’s fetish for control. He has a commitment to commitment, even as he’s tormented – “When you give them the bills,” he says, “you feel so filthy for having it in the first place” – by their ad hoc philanthropy. When Hand tries to back out, go home, save some of the cash, Will upbraids him. “We had perfect control over that moment,” he says. “We were creating art there.”
Partly because Eggers himself still exists in a kind of post-grad mode, Will and Hand seem like college kids: big, clumsy, clueless cubs, coming into their powers while attached umbilically to their adolescence. They make a mess of it – how could they not? They usually do. You Shall Know Our Velocity is a messy, funny book. As always with Eggers, not least interesting is figuring out just who the joke is on.
You Shall Know Our Velocity
By Dave Eggers.
McSweeney’s Publishing; 376 pages; $22.