The Book Club

Smart Bombs Programmed To Strike Dissenting Readers

Hello again, Jim,

I’m beginning to think that the Bush administration stole its biggest idea from Dave Eggers. For Eggers is the true inventor of the Doctrine of Pre-Emption. Like his memoir, his novel is armed with dozens of smart bombs that have been electronically programmed to strike first against any foreign-thinking reader who dares to question his premises. Just as you begin to muse, “Wait a minute, there’s something about Will’s charity scheme that strikes me as a little naive or condescending …” the ceiling explodes. WHAM! You’ve been demolished even before you can complete your dissenting thought. 

Consider the scene with Will’s mother, who plays the role of skeptical straw woman in brief telephone exchanges that take place periodically throughout her son’s journey. Will is furious with her because she doesn’t wholly support his $80,000 giveaway project. But Eggers barely gives Will’s mom more than a second to make her case. In one call that takes place when Will is in Africa, she barely utters the dreaded word—”condescending”—when the missile begins its earthward arc. …

“It’s just such a stupid fucking word to use,” Will thinks. “There’s not one morsel of logic to that word, here. It’s a defense you use to defend your own action.” (Eggers loses his grace—notice the word repetition—as he loses his temper.) The rant gets more intense, and it quickly becomes clear that Will’s mind is laser-targeted as much on the dreaded Jaded Reader as his mother:

’You’re the type that won’t give to a street person; you’ll think you’re doing them harm. But who’s condescending then? You withhold and you run counter to your instincts. … Our instinct is to split our bank account with the person who has nothing. But you’re talking behind seven layers of denial and justification. If it feels good it is good, and today, at the ocean, we met a man living in a half-finished hut, and he was tall and had a radio and we gave him about $700 and it was good. It can’t be taken from us, and you cannot spoil it with words like condescending and subjective, fey and privileged words and you cannot pretend you know a better way. You try it! You do it!’

You could argue that this is one of those multilayered moments where Eggers is simultaneously championing Will’s ideals and exposing his close-mindedness. In this case, however, the tone is so hectoring that, for me at least, the novel momentarily devolved into a sermon. Just in case we haven’t learned our lesson, the next page sums it up: “For every secretary giving her uneaten half-sandwich to a haggard, unwashed homeless vet, there is someone to claim that act is only, somehow, making things worse.The moral universe, it seems, is black and white: There are Kind People and Selfish Intellectuals. There are only two sides. What side are you on? The right side, right?

That’s what impresses me most, Jim, about your calm, lucid, and convincing critique of Will’s wealth-is-bad mantra. How’d you manage to finish typing it without getting blasted to smithereens? For me, this novel would have been a lot more interesting had Eggers, say, created at least one character who mounted a counterargument as sophisticated as yours—a character whose alternate vision of the world was articulated without judgment or instant deflation. As composers know, a melody can have a strong counterpoint and still get stuck in your ear. I think the great novelists understand this. Madame Bovary is brilliant because Flaubert, in addition to writing great prose, makes you sympathize both with Emma’s longing and her husband’s feelings of betrayal. If Flaubert followed the Eggers method, Emma would have merely acknowledged her own faults—”Let me be the first to admit it, I’m sometimes selfish and I read too many silly romances”—as a seductive strategy for convincing you that she was utterly justified in becoming an adulterer.

The “condescending” riff is hardly the only vice-grip moment in Velocity. The moment Eggers presents Will and Hand’s Treasure Map idea, Eggers is poised to blast anyone who finds this notion juvenile. Such people, Will sagely realizes, are people who “feel that they’d seen everything, or conversely, that the extraordinary was not possible—and how funny that these two things, diametrically opposed, are always both found in the jaded brain.” As I’ve said, I personally found the Treasure Map idea very amusing. But I resented this implication that if I didn’t, I was gonna be kicked out of the Kind People Clubhouse.

At another point, Eggers forces Will’s poor mother to trot out, in its sketchiest and therefore most unconvincing form, the classic anti-Dave Eggers argument: “You’re rewarding what?” she asks about Will’s handouts. “Good manners? That’s about control.”

BOOM! “Anytime you don’t know your head from your browneye you say it’s about control,” Will slams back. “It’s about control has turned into the catchphrase of you amateur psychologists.”

Here, I felt like I wasn’t reading a novel, but an appendix to his memoir’s appendix. The fact that Will early on acknowledges his “admonishing tone” in debates with others doesn’t change the fact that this novel sometimes feels straitjacketed by its author’s control-freak personality. In his memoir, such withering narcissism was less bothersome, because memoirs are all about the author. The great thing about novels is that they accommodate not only multiple sides of one mind but also multiple minds. (Even novels written in the first person can do this.)

I hope Eggers can one day transcend his tendency toward close-mindedness, because he has such tremendous talent. His dialogue switches deftly between pitch-perfect realism and Abbott-and-Costello absurdity. He vividly captures the churning of Will’s mind. And his sentences are often terrific. At the beginning of the trip, Will announces his plan to get around the world in a week by flying forever Westward. “We would oppose the turning of the planet and refuse the setting of the sun,” he proclaims. In one phrase, Eggers had me completely hooked on the romance of Will’s journey. 

Jim, you raised the issue of Eggers’s embrace of childlike behavior. There’s a scene near the book’s end that, for me, captures what’s both appealing and off-putting about this aspect. (Or, as Eggers might call it, The Neo-Romantic View of Childhood As Peak of Moral Purity Aspect.) Will is remembering the days that Jack spent in the hospital before dying. Jack’s spine has been crushed, and it’s clear there’s little hope. When Will and Hand hear this dispiriting diagnosis from Jack’s mom, they feel “betrayed.” Behind her back, they concoct a harebrained rescue plan—a crazy plot to kidnap Jack and spirit him away to Mexico, where, Hand has heard, there’s a special spinal-cord-injury clinic. Like covert spies, they rent a minivan and even buy IV bags and a generator. But just as Will pulls in the parking lot, Jack’s mother walks outside with bad news. In one sense, their let’s-make-a-plan impulses are both hilariously baroque and touchingly deluded. Yet here, that buttoned-up side of my brain spoke up loudly and asked: Is this any way for grown men to behave? I began thinking of Jack’s mother, and how horrible it would be to have to contend with these monstrously self-involved friends of her son.

What did you feel about that scene? Am I being too hard on Eggers here, there, and everywhere? In my mind, a Good Reader only bothers being hard on a writer he truly respects. But maybe my brain is fried after our own whirlwind adventure. So, it’s time to sign off—and I’ll do so by quoting Will’s simple farewell to Hand: “It was a good week.”