‘I am owed,’ says Dave Eggers – or ‘Dave Eggers’ – in his much admired A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Owed, that is, the right to publish a memoir in his mid-twenties, because losing both parents to cancer and bringing up your younger brother obviously cuts you quite a bit of slack. Owed, also, the right to move a few things around, to make people into characters, even to moralise – although he makes the remark when a composite figure called ‘John’ complains that the author is exploiting other people’s experiences:
‘I am owed.’
‘You’re not . . . You’re like a . . . a cannibal or something.’
And owed, perhaps, as the book too often seems to assume, a sympathetic attitude to his capacity for huge self-indulgence. Rage and grief are important emotions in AHWOSG, as he likes to call it. But solipsism, knowingness, whimsy and a love of cute fonts are essential ingredients of the Eggers manner, too, and he can be off-puttingly keen to get this across: ‘The Self-Aggrandisement as Art Form Aspect’, ‘The Self-Flagellation as Art Form Aspect’, ‘The Self-Aggrandisement Disguised as Self-Flagellation as Even Higher Art Form Aspect’. Eggers wanted it both ways – raw and cooked. So he presented himself as a strange amalgam of feelingful mourner, idiot savant and smartarse.
Still, AHWOSG was sometimes funny and sometimes moving. And McSweeney’s, Eggers’s publishing operation, does some interesting things. True, McSweeney’s, his periodical, can be almost incomprehensibly arch, while its website, Timothy McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, is like a version of the Onion for people who prefer smirking to laughing. But it’s hard to cultivate whole-hearted disrespect for a bestselling author who uses his time and loot to publish other people’s squibs on the Internet – squibs called things like ‘The Ten Worst Films of 1942, as Reviewed by Ezra Pound over Italian Radio’. (Bambi: ‘Filth.’ Casablanca: ‘This movie is filth.’ Cat People: ‘A race may civilise itself by language, not film. Cat People is filth.’) At least Eggers and his associates seem to be having fun. And in You Shall Know Our Velocity, his first novel, he has some more.
YSKOV – as it’s inevitably known – has abandoned most of the first book’s tricksy outwork. The text is occasionally embellished with photographs, but the only other gimmick is the opening paragraph, which is on the cover. The first line: ‘Everything within takes place after Jack died and before my mom and I drowned in a burning ferry in the cool tannin-tinted Guaviare river, in east-central Colombia, with 42 locals we hadn’t yet met.’ Not content with telling his story from beyond the grave, the narrator has overseen the book-design post mortem. Perhaps layout requirements forced him into that ‘cool tannin-tinted’ business, because the rest of the novel is in much more of a hurry to get off the ground.
Will, the narrator, is – or was – in his late twenties. He comes from ‘just outside Milwaukee’, lives in Chicago and is, in some ways, an ineffectual doofus – not too worldly, not too bright, not too ambitious. Though a bit weird, and given to ‘acting out’, he seems like a nice guy. Also, he has $80,000. This came his way when a snapshot of him screwing in a lightbulb became the logo of a new lightbulb range: ‘I felt briefly, mistakenly, powerful. My outline burned into the minds of millions!’ Shamed by his sudden wealth, he decides to give the money away. So he makes a plan with his best friend, Hand, who is much like him, but flakier and more volatile: they will fly round the world in a week, stopping off to hand out cash to deserving people. Neither of them has left North America before, but by page 43 they’re arriving in Senegal, with Morocco, Estonia and Latvia still to come.
Impulsive, argumentative and operating on their own mysterious logic, Hand and Will are rather like Hunter S. Thompson and his sidekick in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But they don’t do drugs: they do whimsy. Hand, whose real name is Justin, is given to telling people he’s called Sven and breaking into pidgin English. He turns up in Dakar in a shirt bearing the legend i am proud of my black heritage, although he doesn’t have any. And he knows a lot of useless or wrong information, most of it gleaned from the Internet. Will likes to express himself through slapstick: ‘I hung up the phone, jubilant, and threw myself into a wall, then pretended to be getting electrocuted. I do this when I’m very happy.’ But his comedy set-pieces are usually confined to his head. He spends a lot of time daydreaming about dragons, raccoons and ‘hyperintelligent fish’, or speculating in wide-eyed Eddie Izzard style: ‘Estonian bicycles! Maybe they were different. The spokes thinner – or curved.’ He often sounds like a precocious child:
So many questions. Did the flotation devices really float? Did planes actually float long enough for us to get out, jumping down those wide and festive yellow inflatable slides? And also: would it be easier to kill someone who was beautiful, or someone who was ugly? What if you had to do it with your own hands, hovering above? I think there would be a difference . . . Questions, questions. Did Václav Havel have emphysema, or was I imagining that?
As Will’s journey progresses, the reasons for the morbid drift of his reflections are gradually made clear. First, he has recently had his face stove in by some truculent locals in Oconomowoc, a town near Chicago. Hand had called one of them a ‘fucking pussy’, then wandered off before said pussy’s friends showed up. Will isn’t too happy with Hand about this, and dreams of taking revenge on his assailants. Will and Hand had gone to Oconomowoc to collect the possessions of their best friend, Jack, who had been killed, we eventually learn, when a monster truck ran over his car. Will tells us quite a lot about Jack, whose memory is a constant presence. He isn’t too happy with the trucker, either, and dreams of taking revenge on him as well. Finally, though, Will has always been slightly disturbed. His dad wasn’t great, and in his childhood he tried to make himself ‘no longer express or be party to any human emotion’. Now he has, by chance, $80,000, and life seems meaningless. Will isn’t too happy with God about all this, and for good measure threatens a terrible revenge on him, too.
So Hand and Will distract themselves with travel: ‘speed overwhelms.’ They pull stunts, leaping from tree to tree or steering their rented car with their tongues. They take taxis, see the sights, hang out in topless bars, and Will doles out money to anyone who catches his eye: Sierra Leonian prostitutes, Senegalese passers-by, Moroccan merchants, Latvian firewood-sellers. People are thankful, indifferent or suspicious, and the two friends start to worry about the morality of their largesse. Perhaps they’re paying for docility or spreading false hope? Perhaps their motives aren’t as pure as they’d imagined? Typically, they try to divert themselves from such questions with elaborate schemes for getting rid of the cash anonymously: in Senegal, for instance, they tape up a wad of notes, scrawl ‘Here I Am, Rock You like a Hurricane’ on it, then set out to attach it to a donkey.
They encounter several philosophical strangers, who introduce some faintly Californian themes. Annette, a gnomic Frenchwoman, advises them to ‘see each setting and moment as whole . . . A staging ground.’ Later on, Will decides that giving his money away was a gesture of existential solidarity. ‘There wasn’t one thread connecting us to anyone and we had to start threading, I guess, or else it would just be us.’ He speaks of a ‘trail or web’ of human connections – a concept referred to in AHWOSG as ‘the lattice’. And people caught up in his ‘trail or web’ are no longer ‘part of the scenery’: they join ‘the chorus’. Eventually, an aphoristic Chilean called Raymond ties all this together in a parable about ‘the Jumping People’, a mythical South American tribe who combined respect for the ‘chorus’ of accumulated experience with the contradictory virtue of constant movement. Their motto: ‘You Shall Know Our Velocity!’ Will has some epiphanies and persuades himself that life, though short, is probably worth enjoying. After parting with Hand, he finishes his story with a trip to a wedding. He had a good time there, he tells us, adding that he had ‘two more precious and interminable months’ to live.
You Shall Know Our Velocity is a peculiar book, and it would be easy, too easy, to call it ‘precious and interminable’ as well. For a long time, Eggers explained in his memoir, he ‘could not conceive of making up a story or characters – it felt like driving a car in a clown suit’. Well, he’s still wearing the motley here, and the extra-big comedy shoes clearly make it difficult to use the clutch. The tears dripping down his cheeks aren’t greasepaint, though, and this contrast between style and emotion creates increasingly strange effects. Eggers has a genuine investment in his hero’s emotional distress and stammered philosophising. But his eccentric way of going about things tends to set the reader on guard, primed to decode what he’s saying between the lines. Since he’s usually saying it in them, this makes for misunderstandings. YSKOV has many cryptic strands which seem to hint at mysterious depths of subtext: there’s the touch of allegory in the protagonists’ names, for instance, and some elliptical satire on Americans Abroad. But none of this adds up to very much, and in the end the biggest surprise is Eggers’s sincerity, which frequently leads him to lose his sense of proportion.
To give Will time to narrate his plangent back story, Eggers equips him with insomnia as well as a debilitating heart condition. Not only does he lie awake at night worrying about his childhood or his dead friend: he falls over, too, at the author’s convenience, and contemplates the deeper origins of his gloom. This seems mechanical after a while, and the book’s comic energies are dissipated by the hero’s constant soliloquising. Will also likes to conduct imaginary conversations in which his interlocutors blame him for the way his inner journey – and the book – is panning out: ‘Fucking stop it. Now you’re just dredging for the sake of dredging. There’s no point.’ There’s a lot of this attempted spiking of readerly guns. As in Eggers’s memoir, the narrator’s most painful thoughts and memories are generally revealed in these fantasised dialogues. Towards the end of You Shall Know Our Velocity, we get an impression of a writer talking to himself, perhaps in a funny voice, with his characters as visual aids or glove puppets. This is slightly alarming, despite – or perhaps because of – being deliberate.
Then there’s the prose. The set-piece descriptions don’t always come off, especially when he’s been tippling the James Joyce: ‘In the shower, swallowing water, the water broke and hissed on my head, while heavy drops, after loving my abdomen, touched, rhythmically, my insteps.’ He’s also excessively impressed by the joys of repetition. Riffs are cruelly stretched out: ‘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. Teleporting. Why were we spending billions on unmanned missions to Mars when we could be spending the cash on teleporting?’ Will’s obsession with teleportation becomes significant a few pages later, but the key-word could have been lined up with less fuss.
‘Author Wishes She Hadn’t Blown Personal Tragedy On First Book’ was the headline of one story in the Onion’s latest collection (introduction: D. Eggers). Eggers has been more fortunate himself, but problems start when he tries to get serious. As in AHWOSG, we’re meant to understand that ‘the gimmickry is simply a device . . . to obscure the black, blinding, murderous rage and sorrow at the core of this whole story.’ This time, though, the sorrow and rage seem merely a device to justify the elaborate machinery of their avoidance. Self-obsession is Eggers’s subject as well as his method, but it tends to hollow out his characters: Will, Hand and Jack never really come to life; in Eggers’s world people are just ‘extras, paid to drive to and fro’.