I don’t think it’s possible for anyone who writes for a living to be objective about Dave Eggers’ second book — and first novel — “You Shall Know Our Velocity.” As a writer, I can’t be objective about Eggers at all, given the staggering, and to me somewhat heartbreaking, success of his bestselling memoir, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” There’s no point in pretending that writers aren’t envious. All I know is, if a book of mine ever got a paperback sale of $1.4 million and a few million more for the movie rights, I wouldn’t be bellyaching about the way the press covered it, as Eggers so famously does. That’s what makes you want to hate him. That and the money.
On the other hand, Eggers is a hero to writers. At least, he’s a hero to me, bucking his publishers, firing his agents, demanding this and that as he travels around — I love the guy. It’s a reliable measure of his ego, I guess, that when he formed his own publishing company he called it “McSweeney’s Books” and not “Eggers’ Books,” and that his foundation to teach writing to underprivileged children in San Francisco — where he lives, damn it — isn’t called “The Eggers Project” but “826 Valencia,” after its address. I doubt I’d have the energy to do what Eggers does even if I weren’t twice his age, or feeling like it when I look at his résumé.
There’s too much Eggers in my head, is what I’m saying. I need relief. And, presto! — that’s what Eggers’ new novel is about: headache relief.
I mean this literally. Will Chmlielewski, the hero and narrator of “You Shall Know Our Velocity,” is seeking relief for his head, which, on the inside, has been badly affected by the death of a friend and, on the outside, has been beaten to a pulp by a band of toughs. Will moves through the novel with a badly bruised and scabbed face, which everyone keeps telling him — and he keeps telling everyone — will heal to its former condition. It’s the same hope Will holds out for his mind. He can’t sleep without alcohol or masturbation.
“I tried to nap,” Will reports, “but now my head was alive, was a toddler in a room full of new guests. It jumped and squealed and threw the books off the shelves … My mind, I know, I can prove, hovers on hummingbird wings. It hovers and churns. And when it’s operating at full thrust, the churning does not stop. The machines do not rest, the systems rarely cool. And while I can forget anything of any importance — this is why people tell me secrets — my mind has an uncanny knack for organization when it comes to pain. Nothing tormenting is lost, never even diminished in color or intensity or quality of sound. These were filed near the front.”
Sounds a lot like Dave Eggers, doesn’t it? That’s another way “You Shall Know Our Velocity” works as a pain reliever. Eggers is a wonderful writer, bold and inventive, with the technique of a magic realist. “Everything within takes place after Jack died,” says Will in his opening line, “and before my Mom and I drowned in a burning ferry in the cool tannin-tinted Guaviare River, in East-Central Colombia, with forty-two locals we hadn’t yet met.”
The plot of “You Shall Know Our Velocity” is best recounted swiftly, since it hinges on motion and speed. Will (Thought) has a friend called Hand (Action). After Jack’s death in a car crash, they agree to make a six-day trip around the world — “six, six and a half” — flying from country to country and dispersing $80,000 to strangers, money that Will has suddenly come into and which plagues him with white, Western guilt.
“The grand design was movement and the opposition of time,” Will explains, “not drinking, biding, sleeping.” But the boys can’t seem to get anywhere, or anyhow not where they’re aiming. They want to go to Greenland and end up in Senegal. They head for Moscow and end up in London, and, later, at a Latvian orgy, unable to rent cars, unable to get visas, unable to book flights and missing them when they do. And “the waiting!” Will exclaims:
“Every drive to every airport in the world was ugly, lined with the backsides of the most despondent of homes, and every hotel lobby underlined our sloth and mortality. This, this unmitigated slowness of moving from place to place — I had no tools to address it, no words to express the anger it forged inside me … Where was teleporting, for fuck’s sake? Should we not have teleporting by now? They promised us teleporting decades ago! It made all the sense in the world … the one advancement that would finally break us all free of our slow movement from here to there, would zip our big fat slow fleshy bodies around as fast as our minds could will them — which was as fast as they should be going: the speed of thought.”
On their way to nowhere in particular, Will and Hand cross paths and lock horns with a variety of exotics — peasants, prostitutes, elegant Frenchwomen in dark cafes — none of whom seem to want Will’s money. He literally can’t give it away. In the cities, it causes pandemonium and never less than a quick escape. In the country, among African subsistence farmers, it throws Will into confusion — about money, charity, justice, his motives and such. Sometimes he calls his mother, which is no help. In Senegal, a statuesque Parisian named Annette joins Will and Hand for a midnight swim and tells them that they live in “the fourth world,” something Will can’t understand.
“Not the first world,” says Annette, “the world we are from, not the second or third world, so many people treading water. This is different. The fourth world is voluntary. It is quick, small steps from the other worlds … Everyone is sleeping and we are here, in the sea. That is the fourth world. The fourth world is present and available. It’s this close.” As Will grows more paralyzed, Hand, already his opposite in this regard, becomes bolder and more active. “Any thwarted movement was an affront,” Will agrees, “was almost impossible to understand. It was so hard to understand No. But with every untaken step a part of the soul sighs in relief.” Hand remarks, “Let’s go, dipshit.”
If it sounds a bit sophomoric, it is. So is “On the Road.” So was “Emile.” A certain crabbed critic for a paper of record has complained about Eggers’ “shaggy-dog plot” and “self-indulgent yapping,” but I think she’s showing her age. A writer is among us, however imperfect, and he’ll only get better if we leave him alone.