Pros: Eggers' prose, the layers of meaning, the portrayal of a non-linear reality
Cons: A bit too gimmicky, the story starts and stops with maddening irregularity
[My paperback edition of Dave Eggers' "You Shall Know Our Velocity!" notes, "NOTE: This paperback edition includes significant changes and additions". I'll say it does. Having compared notes with Disinclined, who also reviewed the book, we discovered that the new additions not only add major themes, but also call into account everything that came before. So, be forewarned. This review of mine will take into account the new additions, and will be coloured in that light. If you're holding the old-fangled hardcover edition in your hand, and want to know if it's worth your time, I suggest taking in Dis' review instead.]
Like Dave Eggers' previous book, the quasi-biographical "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius", "You Shall Know Our Velocity!" enjoys an ironically arrogant, yet prophetically accurate, title. Just as "AHWOSG" had no right to proclaim its own heartbreaking geniusness, Eggers' first foray into full-length fiction depicts a pair of travelers whose velocity could be measured with a sundial. But, as "Genius" really did turn out to be a work of genius (or at least a step or two below that lofty plateau), "Velocity" moves at a mostly quick pace, and features a narrative that certainly does its best to drive speedily towards something. Whatever that 'something' might be.
Hand (who was once called Hands, but changed it "to sound less like someone who would want time alone with your children") and Will (always a loaded name when saddled on a man-child; see "About a Boy" if you don't believe me) set out on a week-long, around-the-world odyssey, ostensibly to give a boatload of money away. It seems that Will has come into a tidy sum, which for one reason or another he thinks he doesn't deserve, and wants to get rid of it as soon as possible. So he concocts a piece of Conceptual Life, wherein they will give the money away, bit by bit, to people they decide are most deserving. What is their criterion? Where are they headed? Will all this really help them (Will mostly) emerge from the cloud of grief that a recent traumatic event caused to envelope them? Ah, but that would be telling, wouldn't it?
"YSKOV!"'s stock in trade, if "YSKOV!" can be said to have a stock in trade, is interruptions. On a grand scale, the events leading up to the trip, and the trip itself, are all interruptions in Will and Hand's lives. In the body of the trip itself, the boys are always getting sidetracked, by oddball flight schedules, missed flights, the destination country's desire for a Visa, or even the confusion of a ticket officer. They are always veering off course.
But it is in a literary sense where Eggers does his best interrupting. Many of the more poignant passages take place entirely in Will's heads, with his thoughts. Often, though, a long, tangent-filled digression will be punctured by Hand, back in the waking world, asking an off-kilter question or two. Will is prone to daydreaming, or losing his sense of concentration, and Hand is often called upon to bring his friend back into focus.
Other moments find Eggers subverting anything that comes close to beautiful prose by allowing Will's insecurities, or ignorance, to intrude on the thought. "To the right," begins one such instance, "beyond the fields and a thin row of trees, the Atlantic -- wait; right, the Atlantic -- shimmered like a dime." You can see how, even in the friendly confines of his own head, Will takes a moment to get his facts straight. Eggers could've written a very straightforward, breezy poetic work. If he wanted to. But the act of subversion, of interrupting even his best literary instincts, is more appealing to him. And to me, quite frankly.
Sometimes, though, his interludes can become quite gimmicky. One interruption, which breaks off in the middle of a sentence, comes complete with 3 1/2 blank pages. For a moment I thought the printer had forgotten to print the book's final 240 pages. After a couple of moments of frantic flipping, the narrative resumes. But the residue of the dirty trick remains: Eggers is an author full of surprises, none of which can be trusted.
What do all these interruptions signify? Well, one easy guess is that they represent real life. "YSKOV!" features a narrative that, from its conception outwards, would appear to be straightforward: we follow the boys as they follow a straight line all the way around the world. But the best laid plans of Will and Hand often go awry. And, though the book can get repetitive and often times frustrating by its lack of direction, it certainly mimics the frustrating lack of direction in real life. The plentiful interruptions remind of the plentiful interruptions that insist on derailing your life, and mine.
Another theory, one that I won't go into thoroughly for fear of spoiling, is that the interruptions signify an end to things. Death, as a theme, drops in all over the place here; in fact, it might be the main impetus for Will and Hand taking the trip in the first place. Death is the ultimate interrupter; it can, randomly, end a life. Or begin one. "YSKOV!" is all about the absurdity of death, and how a pair of friends deal with this absurdity. In the most absurd of ways.
(Excellent. So the book is about Life and Death. If I thought it at all possible, I'd go hunting for even grander themes.)
With all this starting and stopping, frustrating the reader, a prudent question might be: is the book worth reading at all? Well, of course. For the challenges it offers. And for Hand and Will, who are able and entertaining guides.
Hand is the more easily definable of the two main characters. [Reviewer's Note: That is, in the hardcover version; the paperback's additions actual elevate him, in terms of complexity, to a level equal to or even greater than Will] He's usually depicted as a flighty, know-it-all goof-off. A joker, a fool, and, paradoxically, the Quixotic dreamer to Will's Sancho Panza-esque pragmatist. It might be best, for such a lovably oddball creation, to let Eggers' own words describe him:
"[Hand] left any job where he wasn't learning or when his dignity, however defined, was anywhere compromised."
Right. So he's an individual, and a proud non-conformist.
"[Hand]'d veer within this emporium of anecdote like an angry drunk, but all of his stories stood steadfastly behind, never with a twinge of doubt or even allowances for your own."
Yup. He's a vast and unrelenting reservoir of knowledge. Most of it likely bullshit, but at least it's often practical bullshit.
Will, via his narrator's role, is a bit tougher to pin down. We -- and he, now that I think of it -- are never really made privy to the reasons why he must dispose of the money. But that doesn't mean we can't sympathize with his motivations. Will is a passionate fellow, and even though he rarely shares his passions in the usual ways, they are always communicated efficiently.
Much of what Will goes through during the course of the novel involves finding out who he is in this new, post-traumatic environment. An act as simple as signing his traveler's cheques ("swoop! swoop!" he says with boyish enthusiasm) gains Will a new identity. Or loses a bit of what he already had. Things get more complex than that, though.
Through one of our many trips into Will's head, we get the following realization:
" I thought, how odd it was to be thinking about running forever along the rounded gray rocks of this corner of Senegal -- was this Popenguine? Mbour? -- while I was in fact running along them, and how strange it was that not only could I be calculating the placement of my feet in midrun, but also be thinking of my future as a career or eternal rock-runner, and noting the thinking about that at the same time."
It's a great example of Will's fantastic mind, one that trips from idea to idea as quickly as, well, as a young man running across a rocky path. His ability to create free-flowing ideas, which are often deceptively profound, makes for some of the book's loopiest reading. But it also shows that Will (being a product of his post-post-modernist author-creator) is aware of the meta-fictions he is creating. And is aware of the meta-fictions his meta-fictions are creating. It's enough to drive one batty, so deep are the levels in Will's mind. But it's also enough to find him endlessly intriguing.
But for every psychedelic wandering, Will will also have a salient thought on, say, the nature of morality in the modern world. "For every good deed," he notes, "there is someone, who is not doing a good deed, who is, for instance, gardening, questioning exactly how you're doing that good deed. 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 it worse. The inactive must justify their sloth by picking nits with those making an attempt--"
Notice how, just as Will is getting on a profound roll, Eggers interrupts the thought. It's that kind of book. It never takes the easy path, never lays out easy answers, and never asks rudimentary questions. Well that last bit is not totally true. Will, in the midst of one of his many faux-conversations with Winston Churchill (!), asks: "Where is my mission? Where are my bunkers and trenches, my goddamn Gallipoli?" It's the closest he ever comes to an attempt at articulating the reasons for his velocity, and why it is worth knowing.
"YSKOV!" flows with dollops of easygoing prose, features a protagonist and his best friend often locked in comic conversations and always on ridiculous adventures, and takes place in many of the world's last undiscovered (in a popular literary sense) locales. But it can also be maddeningly repetitive, intent on creating many more layers of interpretation than necessary, and caught up in its own profundity. A well-balanced read, if you ask me.
NOTES ON THE PAPERBACK EDITION
Previously retitled "Sacrament", and re-retitled "You Shall Know Our Velocity!", the significant changes mentioned above amount to, as far as I can tell, mostly just a 50-page addition, slotted smack dab in the middle of the story. An addition that, following along with the hypothesis I previously developed, works as the granddaddy of all interruptions. It is unfair to tell you just what form this interruption takes. But I will say that it calls into question everything you would have read before it (in a way a reader of the hardback might never have considered) and colours everything you'll read afterwards (in a way a reader of the hardback might deem unfair). And it provides yet another level of meaning. Pick your poison, folks. Hardcover or paperback. They're pretty much two different books.
But, in a plainer, more beautiful sense, it also provides a nifty idea of what sacrament could be:
"[T]he external, social demonstration of how we feel within. It is not practical and without it we would feel the same way; it is a reminder only, and a relatively unnecessary one at that. But that does not mean it is distensible, nor does it mean it is unbeautiful."
The beauty of this definition, and the ideas it holds, all but assure Eggers' place as an important writer in the modern literary canon. Here's hoping he can sustain the pace set by his first two works.