I really wanted to like Dave Eggers’ first novel for three reasons, all of them terribly selfish. One, I’ve spent countless hours defending Eggers’ remarkable—and remarkably polarizing—memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and I wanted You Shall Know Our Velocity to confirm that all of us who found his first book witty (instead of gimmicky) and explosive (instead of hysterical) and moving (instead of mawkish) were correct in thinking that a significant talent had arrived. What side of the battle were you on, Jim? The right side, I hope.
Two, I was terrified not to like it. After all, taking on Eggers is the book-nerd’s equivalent of going on Fear Factor. Oh, if only I could swallow a few poisonous bugs instead of risking the Eggers hex! You know the hex, right? He spells it out in various guises in the splenetic appendix that was unfortunately appended to the paperback edition of AHWOSG. If you don’t like his books, he strongly implies, you are a bad person—that is, one of those “Mean/Jaded/Skimming Readers” who are poisoning the well of American literary culture. And God help you if you don’t interpret his books the way Eggers sees them! In that same appendix, he guns down every reader who dares to find anything humorous in his memoir’s first chapter. (“Are there even a few funny moments in this section? Absolutely not.”) And then there was that damning pronouncement he made in an interview—namely, that anyone who reviews a book without having written one first is clearly writing out of jealousy and rage. I haven’t written a book yet, so if I didn’t like You Shall Know Our Velocity, I would have to face the fact that I was jaded, stupid, and jealous. To survive in the literary police state that has become Eggersland, I thought, it might be better to convince myself I liked it even if I didn’t—the way Iraqis force themselves to proclaim to reporters, “I love Saddam!” Of course, this wouldn’t be necessary if I honestly loved Velocity. So I crossed my fingers.
My third reason was far simpler. I was hoping that Eggers, who when he’s not being vengeful tries wonderfully hard to be fun, would entertain me.
Well, You Shall Know Our Velocity did entertain me, although not nearly as extravagantly as I had hoped. The novel is a genial but slack picaresque about two young Americans, Will and Hand, who attempt a silly but big-hearted stunt: zipping around the globe in a week while attempting to give away thousands of dollars to deserving strangers. Will, the narrator, reveals that the money is one of those boom-economy grotesqueries—he was handed $80,000 for allowing his likeness to be slapped on a company logo—and this obscenely good fortune has filled him not with glee but shame. The duo’s trip is also fueled by grief; Jack, a close friend of Will and Hand’s, recently died in a car accident, and their warp-speed trip is an exaggerated enactment of that classic post-funeral dictum: “You guys have got to move on with your lives.”
The Jackass-style silliness of the main narrative—hey, let’s pin money to a donkey’s butt!—is sporadically interrupted by bouts of rage and sadness, as Will erupts into violent crying jags over Jack. (Angry Eggers still lives!) But the prevailing tenor of the book is gently humorous—and, occasionally, it’s very funny. In the Morocco section, there’s a hilarious inversion of the classic bargaining-in-the-bazaar scene in which Will and Hand keep raising their asking price until they succeed in paying hundreds of dollars for a trinket. Eggers amusingly exposes the clumsiness of Will’s give-it-all-away scheme, and in his portrait of Hand he nails the bumptiousness of today’s backpack-swinging American travelers: stinking in their unwashed T-shirts; mocking the pidgin English of foreigners; making it all the way to Senegal only to complain, “This looks like Arizona.”
Even though Eggers’ prose is often lovely—small delights, like jumping across stones on the Senegalese coast, are beautifully evoked—I felt that this book ended up being strangled by its own conceit. Pretty quickly, the book begins to feel repetitive (and not in that deep, Becketty way). Yet another attempt to give away money—usually botched—is followed by another car breakdown, which is followed by another tussle with airline agents who can’t understand why two jerks are demanding to fly right now from Dakar to Ulan Bator. Too soon after you’ve started chewing, the book loses its flavor.
Most disappointingly, this novel didn’t move me. (God, his first book did: The scene in which Dave screws everything up while trying to toss his mother’s ashes into Lake Michigan makes me cry every time I read it.) For me, the central problem with Velocity—the thing that makes it lack lasting resonance—is that Jack is far too sketchy a presence. He’s spoken of highly, but there are no vivid flashbacks to make you understand why Will loved him so much.
Velocity is more intriguing—and weird—when it comes to money. Jim, in your New Yorker column you write very intelligently about this subject. I’d love to know what you thought about Will’s being repulsed by the idea of spending money on himself. “To travel is selfish,” he proclaims. “That money could be used for hungry stomachs and you’re using it up for your hungry eyes.” After spending $1,600 for two airline tickets—New Yorkers like us often spend that much on take-out each month—Will confides, “I thought of the people who could live or eat off money like this. … We were motherfucking bastards.” The prevailing ethic here echoes an essay that Peter Singer, the abstemious moral philosopher, once published in the New York Times Magazine, where I am an editor. Its theme was this: Give away all the money you have that you don’t need to survive or you’re not living a truly moral life. Most people don’t buy this idea, obviously, but it certainly makes you think. Did you take Will’s laments seriously? Is he a Whitmanian prophet in slacker disguise, rousing us to become more loving beings? Or is he just a dopey lefty?
Eggers also seems to be making an implicit case for person-to-person charity: Give that homeless man your quarters! Hug the urchin! At first, this theme made me feel defensive. I’ve been a very Oxfam kind of guy: When it comes to charity, I write a check to a beneficent bureaucracy; for some reason, I’ve wanted my money doled out anonymously. Yet Eggers succeeded in making me wonder if sentiment and intimate human contact should play a more central role in gift-giving. Will may make a mess of his idea, Eggers seems to say, but his impulse has deep good in it. Am I reading the book correctly, Jim? Or am I being mean, stupid, and jaded?