So many questions, so little time. I’m not really sure where to start, so let me take the easy way out and begin where you do, with A Heartbreaking Work. I was on what I guess you’d call the right side, in that I came away from it with a clear sense that, as you put it, “a significant talent had arrived.” I have a clear memory of reading the excerpt from AHWOSG that we ran in The New Yorker and just being dazzled in that most simple way, feeling that I had just read something really new. That excerpt included a great scene where Eggers and his brother Toph play Frisbee, a scene that was so vivid in its evocation of what it’s like to feel for a moment as if everything has clicked into place, as if it really was possible to “throw the frisbee farther than anyone has ever seen a frisbee go,” that I pretty much fell for the whole thing right then. AHWOSG is flawed—as everyone has pointed out, the middle part of the book, when Eggers starts Might, drags and lacks the force of the family material—but undeniably great.
You Shall Know Our Velocity is a very different book. Even though its story is much more concentrated than AHWOSG, it feels more all over the place, which is what you were getting at when you called it “slack.” There are fewer formal and stylistic pyrotechnics. (Though there are enough.) And the book is more diffuse emotionally, I think in part because the relationship between Will and Hand doesn’t have the clarity or emotional resonance of the relationship between Eggers and Toph in AHWOSG. But for all that, I have to say, I liked it. I think you’re right that the story doesn’t really go anywhere and that the antics are too repetitive. But I guess I just bought it, bought that the aimless wandering was all that Will could figure out how to do after his friend dies in a senseless car accident and after he himself is nearly beaten to death by some random thugs. Early on in the book, when Will asks Hand to come on the trip with him, he says, “I knew Hand would say yes because for five months we hadn’t said no. There had been some difficult requests but we hadn’t said no.” And for me, that’s what Will is doing all through the book: saying yes to everything, even to stuff that seems ridiculous and foolish and wasteful. I don’t think that Will’s yes-saying is all good because if he’s immersing himself in the world out there, he’s doing it in part because he doesn’t want to face the world back home. But the energy of the book, and of the prose, got to me. Even as Will and Hand sometimes stayed still, I thought the book moved.
More important, I think, is that I like the way Eggers writes about emotion by writing around it as a way of writing to it. I didn’t think AHWOSG was gimmicky because I thought all the stylistic gambits reflected something real, which was the struggle to find a way to say something that, really, you don’t want to have to say: These people I loved very much are dead, and I am not. In some sense, I think AHWOSG was just Eggers’ desperate, beautiful attempt to convince himself that things were really going to be OK, even as all along he knew that they really weren’t. And I think he’s doing something similar, if perhaps more obliquely, in the new novel. You’re right that Jack, Will’s dead friend who is the apparent inspiration for the trip, is a sketchy presence. But I didn’t mind that. I thought Will said enough to make me believe that he missed Jack. Will knows what Jack meant to him, and if he doesn’t fill in the gaps, I think it’s because when you’re alone in your head, you don’t always fill in the gaps. Anyway, I like the way Jack—and, to some extent, Will’s unexplained beating—haunt the book. They’re always there, and you can feel them pushing Will and Hand (though Hand less so). But they never fully become clear. I think this is a good thing. (Much less good, I think, is Will’s whole attitude toward money and charity, but I’ll save that for next time.)
I should wrap this up, but I think there is something we should talk about next time, which you were getting at in the beginning of your entry, and that is Eggers’ whole attitude toward writing and criticism. Whenever you read a book, I guess you want in some sense—albeit a naive sense—to read the book on its own terms (whatever that means). But as I read You Shall Know, it was basically impossible to separate Will from Eggers and, on some deeper level, impossible to separate the book from the whole Dave Eggers phenomenon. I’m not sure this is entirely a bad thing, but it’s at the very least an interesting thing. What do you think? Are Eggers the character (publishing impresario, scourge of the Mean Reader, etc.) and Eggers the author distinguishable? Is the work distinguishable from the author? And doesn’t Eggers in a way want this kind of confusion, as evidenced by that preface to AHWOSG, where he essentially insists on his reading of his own book as the correct one?