I’ve known little about Dave Eggers other than he is the publisher of McSweeney’s and that he is considered one of the more “important” novelists of his (my) generation. (I use the quotations in “important” not as a dig at Eggers, but at the whole arbitrary notion of “important” in general). So I was looking forward to reading this novel - Eggers's first. The first thing I immediately noticed was it’s “literary” character. The influences of Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace are very clear, as is it is with many contemporary young novelists, and if you are fans of Wallace and DeLillo, you will thoroughly enjoy this novel.
I enjoyed this novel very much as well, although the literary path many young writer’s take (The Wallace path) is far from my own, but that’s neither here nor there. It is a thought provoking story and throughout I had wondered how much of it was in the narrator’s head and how much of it was actually occurring. Strange sensation to have, since there are apparently two versions of this novel which also calls the reliability of the narrator into question (more on this later).
The story is about two friends, Will and Hand. Will has come into money, about $80,000 he earned as a “model” for a light bulb company, who used his silhouette for their bulb boxes. At the very beginning of the story we learn that their friend Jack had been killed in a road accident and both Will and Hand had plans to use the money to try to help save their friend’s life, which of course, they couldn’t. Feeling uneasy about having this money and feeling that he didn’t really earn it, Will and Hand decide to take a trip around the world to differing “obscure countries” with a plan to arbitrarily give away the money to whoever they decide to. They make their plan and they head off to these exotic locations: Senegal, Morocco, Estonia and Latvia. The bulk of the novel reads like a fictional travelogue of sorts, detailing their experiences as they ping around the globe. These parts were thoroughly enjoyable and Eggers does have a talent that brings you along with them, making you feel as if you were part of the trip yourself.
Other issues are present here as well. Before the trip - and slowly revealed as the novel progresses - Will was a victim of a violent beating, which, coupled with the death of his friend, has a tremendous effect on his psyche. There are many passages where he returns to the incident, making him increasingly emotionally unstable. He has many interior conversations with his dead friend as he tries to make sense of his life and the meaning of existence, the questions about the arbitrary nature of life as well as trying to find his place in the world. There are many digressions (here is the Wallace influence) into his and Hand’s past: their childhood, their high school years, etc, which all indicate to the reader where Will’s head is at throughout the story. All in all, in it’s own way, it is an updated version of “On The Road”, an influence which is clearly present here as well.
Now apparently there is another version of this novel, entitled “Sacrament” where there is a 49 page insert from the point of view of Hand (this version of the book I read does not have this) which calls into question the reliability of Will’s account of the story being told here. The implication is that their friend Jack doesn’t exist and Will’s interior monologue was in actuality his way of dealing with the loss of his mother (something not indicated in this version of the novel). As to why there are these two versions, I don’t know, but knowing this after the fact does make you think about the story differently and reframes the entire experience. Perhaps this version should have had an “appendix” of sorts to indicate to a first time reader unfamiliar with Eggers's work of this fact, but then again, perhaps the two differing versions keep things interesting.
“You Shall Know Our Velocity!” is a really good novel, definitely in the “Post-Modern” mode. You will think about a lot of it when you’re finished and it is definitely one of those novels that will keep the discussion going.