It all starts out so easily: simple, contained, straightforward. After that, the world turns into something that resembles Dave Eggers’s extremely engaging new work, You Shall Know Our Velocity.
Skip a few pages into the book, and you are handed a template of what the plot might look like, were it to run smoothly. The narrator, Will, and Hand, two Wisconsin friends in their late 20s, decide to go around the world and give away $32,000. Will comes up with the idea after hearing about special tickets being offered by the airlines: “The tickets allowed unrestricted flying as long as you kept going one direction, once around the globe without turning back. You usually have twelve months to complete the circuit, but we’d have to do it in a week.” That plan falls apart because of logistics (visas, time, flights), but the duo heads out anyway, from O’Hare to Senegal, from Senegal to Morocco, Estonia, and Latvia, handing out bundles of cash along the way.
Frankly, that’s the plot: two friends traveling around the world and giving away money. Does it work? In short, yes. The road trip, by this point, is certainly not a new plot device, but Eggers does some terribly interesting things with it, all within the space of about a week’s time in the novel. Before writing the book, Eggers actually traveled the route his characters take, and this seems to have opened up a wealth of details for him. The encounters that ensue are generally funny and, in their peculiar way, quite revealing.
As we watch these two rather un-worldly Americans barge through Africa and Eastern Europe, handing out money to random strangers, we are forced to question America’s place in the world. How do two guys from Wisconsin, with the luxury of freely moving and throwing away money, fit in with the people they meet? The “great charity” that Will and Hand undertake seems driven by Will’s personal needs. Their distribution methods are trenchantly subjective, and the correlation blurs between those who need money and those who receive it. More importantly, though, is how the experience affects them: after all, as an aging French woman points out to them, “It is so rare to be able to educate a few young Americans.” The answers that the novel provides are tucked away in the changing face of descriptions, both of the land and of the people.
You Shall Know Our Velocity is Eggers’s second book, following A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and he has received quite a bit of good press since then. If anything, Y.S.K.O.V. (the books are referred to by initials) should help cement his position as one of the great budding authors in America. Moving away from the realm of non-fiction (A.H.W.O.S.G. was a memoir), Eggers opens up a very well constructed and imaginative world.
Due, in some part, to the style of the book, some critics have used Eggers name within the same phrase as that gauntlet of a name, James Joyce. The task of thinking of Eggers in this respect hurts my brain. As good as his writing is at the moment, it lacks something of the painful density that spills out of great literature. When you try to stick your fingers into the thick of it, Eggers’s writing yields a bit too muchit gives in and not back.
Still, the book accomplishes a great deal, and Eggers proves himself a capable writer and stylist. Will and Hand, in particular, are more than a rehashing of Eggers’s travel log. As much as there is a plot, it is carried along by the changes within the two friends, both in their conceptions of themselves and their understanding of one another. The prose is evocative, if a bit meandering and unnecessary at times. Thankfully, though, the writing offers insights far beyond the concrete happenings of the book.
The linear plot accounts for only half of the story. The other half travels in the opposite direction, as we uncover images and fragments about Jack, the third in a circle of best friends with Will and Hand, who died in a horrific car crash a short time before Will comes upon his elaborate plan. Will, of course, is still devastated by his friend’s death.
Will’s fate is sealed in both directions by the first sentence of the book. (The book begins, by the way, on the front cover, something that may seem like a novelty, but that works quite nicely. It takes away any preconceptions, letting the reader jump into the story more completely.) It is Will’s journey, putting pieces together in each direction, which proves to be the center of the work.
On this note, the title of the book refers to the Jumping People who may have lived in Chile and who believed they carried all of their ancestors inside them, making them heavy as mountains. Their story echoes deeply inside of Will. At one point in the novel, Hand mentions the hypothetical “multiverse,” in which many different universes exist at the same time. Will thinks about all the other planes Jack might be alive on, but ends up muttering, “Who cares how many universes or planes there are when they don’t intersect?” This is the heart of what Eggers is trying to tell us: it makes no difference how many universes there might be, only how many people intersect in this one. Joyce? No. Good? Very.