You Shall Know Our Velocity, by Dave Eggers
You Shall Know Our Velocity.|
McSweeney's Publishing, 2002.
350 pages, $20 (hardback).
I read a big chunk of You Shall Know Our Velocity en route to an anti-war rally near the United Nations in New York City. With each page, a strange opposition emerged between the exuberant young activists surrounding me on the bus and the muddled world view of Will, the novel's twenty-something narrator, who flies around the world as part of a plan to give away, in the space of a week, his inheritance to the deserving poor. His sidekick in this philanthropic mission is Hand, who has a head for facts and a flippant tongue. They are haunted by the death of Jack, their childhood buddy who died in a violent car accident.
It's Will's grief, though, that turns the story into an elegy not only for Jack, but a for a long-vanished sense of belonging somewhere. Unanchored, he and Hand fly east for Africa and Europe. The meanderings of his exhausted mind shape his—and our—perceptions of this quest, which never feels fully realized. Senegal, the first destination, is a land of vibrant women and missed opportunities to give away as much cash as Will intended. Life, it turns out, gets in the way. This pattern is repeated elsewhere, forcing Will and Hand to come up with often far-fetched ways to bestow gifts upon unsuspecting—and sometimes unwilling—recipients.
Both men possess a spontaneity that wouldn't have been out of place on the bus to New York. Their ironic sense of humor and their awareness of global interconnectedness also seem characteristic of my generation. Still, they are fictional characters living in a fictional universe that operates according to rules provided by the author, who must persuade, and even provoke, us into believing what is ultimately a self-contained creation.
Has Eggers provoked me into accepting his creation? Well, yes and no. He's constructed a believable narrative voice and sustains it throughout the story. His language captures the lyricism and the inarticulateness that co-exist in Will's mind as well as the modern penchant for dislocation. He also conveys the beauty of foreign lands and people, particularly the mysterious, elegant Europeans, who, like Will, are driven to wander, as in the case of a Frenchwoman on a Senegalese beach. Encountering her seems to evoke for Will a divine presence, an anima in a white bathing suit who speaks of a fourth world as, "half-thought, half actual. It's a staging ground . . . The main point is that we have to cut from hope of continuity. Momentum. We must to see each setting and moment as whole." It's an effective, if ultimately minor, epiphany: Will emerges from this conversation feeling comfortable in his own skin, although I'm not quite sure why. After all, he admits he found the woman slightly unbalanced, and he doesn't reveal an affinity for her viewpoint.
Through devices such as flashbacks, interior monologues, and dreams, we learn about Will's past and of his yearning to find himself, like Winston Churchill, alive in an era of great events and landscapes made immortal through art. Such grandeur couldn't exist in contemporary America nor in himself, he believes. His discovery that the world isn't his to change, neither financially nor aesthetically, conflicts with his need to give away his money. Even before setting off on the plane, he struggles with this issue: "Since I got a little money, this was a constant struggle, the frustration with people and their coupons, people and their dirty clothes, families . . . and my urge to buy things for them, even just their food, and my inability, due to the imagined and impossible barrier between myself and these strangers with fumbling hands, to engage them and fix things."
The problem lies in that perceived barrier. Will's inability to engage fully with life ends up alienating readers from his story. His responses to Hand and other characters fail to convey understanding or change. Clearly he's meant to have changed by the novel's end, yet the details don't show how. The momentum of some of the scenes, especially toward the end, also seems forced.
The journey matters more than the destination goes the cliche, but it's true. Eggers is a daring, even original writer. It's just that when leading us across uncharted territory, he needs to provide more signposts along the way.