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Book review: <i>You Shall Know Our Velocity</i> by David Eggers

If this was litter, it would be a hundred American dollars in a filthy wad with half an East-European Snickers glued to it.


Cute. Ignoring the black “spine” bar, the text of the novel starts top left, black and white, and runs straight into the book. No intro, no prologue, no acknowledgments, even the publishing info’s been pushed to the inside rear cover. Call this a gimmick if you like, but it’s undeniably in keeping with the themes of the book.

The plot

Jack, Will and Hand, now pushing thirty, have been friends since childhood. When Jack dies in a car accident, Will and Hand go a bit crazy. After Will is brutally beaten in a lock-up whilst sorting through Jack’s stuff, the pair decide to leave the country. Will has recently received forty grand cash for a legal but entirely ridiculous reason (his shitty renovating job lucks him a spot up a ladder on the box art of a brand of light bulbs), and he decides to spend a week with Hand travelling randomly across the un-Western world distributing the money to anyone they consider worthy.

The good

Firstly, let me say that I came to this with no expectations other than that I’d heard Eggers referred to by a couple of authors in the context of post-modernism, and knew he’d started the McSweeney’s publishing house. With that in mind, I was surprised and impressed by what Eggers achieves in this book.

While more complex in scope than I could easily summarise, there’s simultaneously a determined straightforwardness to it. The main characters, for instance, are no existential philosophers—Will is a man driven primarily by fears he can barely define, and Hand is a handsome, witless lummox. Eggers ensures that their quick-fire, plan-less mission plays out as realistically as it would, to the point where I felt sure he’d taken the trip himself. But it’s in the displaced air around the pair, the turbulence created by the speed of their passage, if you’ll permit me, where the subtleties of the story are.

How can it be so impossibly strange to connect with another living human, even during the most positively-weighted exchange—while handing them a fistful of free money, say—when it’s what we’re born to do? Will says to himself that it’s because love is implicit in every contact, yet we deny it and thus drive ourselves nuts. In this field Hand is the happier of the pair; casually flirting with waitresses, unashamedly mimicking the locals’ English, throwing out factoids, and externalising the kind of conversation Will is content to merely imagine.

I shan’t summarise the characters any more because it’s too easy to over-simplify them. In fact, like most people, they are the sum of their blurred true selves plus their self-drawn black and white caricatures.

For instance, Will is the perfect example of what I read a Buddhist describe as, “an untamed heart,” as in the statement, “There’s nothing more dangerous than...” An untamed heart sounds great if you’re Barabara Cartland, but the appealing part of that idea is passion, and passion is really about focus. The untamed heart is not only untamed like a mighty thrusting windswept stallion, you see, but also has no idea what it wants or where it’s going, and can cause an amazing amount of damage to its owner and the people he thinks he loves. It’s a common condition in the west, where we’re raised to want, raised to question belief before developing any. Will’s heart is untamed both figuratively and literally (he has an arrhythmic condition), just as the wounds on his psyche, caused (or at least opened) by Jack’s death, are literally manifested on the head that surrounds them in the scabby results of his beating.

The core focus of haste for its own sake is a lot of what I enjoyed about this book. The title itself is another example—derived from a possibly fictional tribes-people’s message to an advancing army, it can be read on different levels, but one of them is undoubtedly just a cooler way of saying, “Eat My Dust”.

To displace a lack of control at the deepest levels with an embrace of speed, of motion, of the moment, is not such a new idea, I suppose. Yet this tale does feel unmistakably contemporary, and not simply because of the prose (which had far fewer references, tricks and tags than I’d been expecting—occasional pasted graphics are almost the totality), but because, I think, of the way the characters approach the world: With youth, as though it’s a ripe bunch of grapes theirs to pick, yes, but also as though it’s full of terrifying potential faux pas, exotic places that are too familiar for comfort, embarrassing social inequities, and your drunk friend trying to tell the Senegalese taxi driver that stupid bullshit story about Senegal forest cults he saw on Sixty Minutes that one time.

And please don’t get the impression that the book thunders past in a great careless rush, either—there are some gentle, beautiful moments, both within and without the characters. Egger’s description of Will’s early connection with another, while kissing at a school dance, as their interior landscapes momentarily converge, is entirely unsentimental yet just gorgeous. The ending, too, was warm and welcoming, just like the homecoming it represents. Feel free to file this under “The bad” if you are my ex-girlfriend who likes Dostoevsky.

The bad

Eggers touches briefly on our bumbling, cash-waving duo as being somewhat emblematic of America rubbing up against the world, but largely dodges the politics. It’s fair enough—that’s probably another whole book, or at least this one retold in a different way—but it would have been easy to cut the idea completely, unless he believes it completely unavoidable, in which case he could have given it a bit more room.

There’s one weak section at the end where Eggers falls into that old serious-young-writer pit, whereby an internal dialogue becomes an internal monologue which becomes a soliloquy directed straight at the reader, who is suddenly holding a book called “My Amazing Un-Gussied Opinions, By The Author” (a title which isn’t too far from that of Eggers’ first book, A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius, now that I think about it). It’s only a momentary lapse, however, before Eggers is back in the saddle—in fact, the otherwise skilful use of Will’s internal conversations is the reason why this stumble is evident.

Oh, one more thing. This is going to sound harsh no matter how I say it, but if you’re going to accost the reader as directly as possible with the first sentences of your book, by sticking them on the cover, for instance, then they really ought to be ZINGERS. I mean The Gun Seller and The Book Of Genesis rolled into one. And these aren’t. They’re not bad, as such, just a bit wordy and unengaging. Not a favourable example of the unique, sentence-friendly prose within. Like that sad, nude glob of text they sometimes stick between the ISBN and the acknowledgements. Honestly, if I’d come across this title on a shelf, rather than seeking it out by reputation, I would have read the cover in honour of its novelty, then put it back in response to the text’s lack thereof. And that would have been a real shame.

What I learnt

Geography that I’ve already forgotten. Geography SCHMEOGRAPHY I say, typically with a mouthful of half-chewed food (it’s more eloquent like that).

There are plenty of destinations you can fly to without a visa. Just not many common ones.

In short

Title: You Shall Know Our Velocity
Author: David Eggers
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton Ltd
ISBN: 0241142288
Year published: 2003
Pages: 352
Genre(s): Contemporary literature

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here

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