Let’s try an experiment. Pretend you know nothing about Dave Eggers. You’ve never read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, never set eyes on McSweeney’s archly antiquated typeface. You’ve perused neither the Web sites mocking him nor the puff pieces lionizing him. Dave Eggers is just a fledgling novelist who has produced a self-published debut called You Shall Know Our Velocity.
In an ideal world, this is how a critic should approach You Shall Know: separate the book from the miasma of hype and cult of personality that surrounds its author, and consider the work as an entity in itself. The novel doesn’t have a sleeve or a first page, only a rough-hewn cover that serves as the story’s first page. “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”: Not a classic first line, but not a complete stinker. By the bottom of the cover, though, he’s dropping clunkers about “wind coming low and searching off the jagged half-frozen lake.” If my mind were a critical blank slate, I might have stopped reading right there. But OK, I do know something about Eggers, and so the benefit of the doubt kicks in: Maybe this is a pastiche of an overwritten novel that will unfurl into majestic cleverness.
That was the bait-and-switch game Eggers played with A Heartbreaking Work: Only by distancing himself with narrative gimmicks could he recount the grim details of his parents’ deaths. Only by drenching everything in irony and artifice could he communicate the self-conscious nature of his life as a card-carrying member of the Real World generation. Eggers mocked the way he and his friends theoretically cared about issues like unemployment but were more interested in producing legendary alternative magazines. “You and everyone like you,” he wrote back then, “with your Q&As or columns or Web sites—you all want to be famous, you want to be rock stars, but you’re stuck in this terrible bind, where you also want to be thought of as smart, legitimate, permanent.”
Eggers is now firmly wedged in this “terrible bind”—famous but desperate for everyone to know how much fame mortifies him. He frequently makes the best of his situation (promoting writers via McSweeney’s Books or establishing his nonprofit tutoring center 826 Valencia) and sometimes makes a mess of it (his wrangles with the press suggest control-freak issues on par with Martha Stewart’s). Through it all, he’s managed to imbue everything he touches with his tricksterish sensibility.
Unfortunately, sensibility is not enough to sustain this existential road novel for 371 pages. The premise of You Shall Know sounds like the latest reality TV series. Will and Hand, devastated by their best friend’s recent death, decide to fly around the world in one week, giving away a $32,000 “windfall.” The duo’s globe-trotting plans are foiled at every turn: Their plane to Greenland is delayed by excessive wind, so they end up in Senegal, where they discover most destinations require visas. Since the important thing is to keep moving—to flee their own angst—these delays are excruciating: “Where was teleporting, for fuck’s sake? . . . They promised us teleporting decades ago!” Will, the book’s narrator, blurts out stuff like this all the time—sub-Seinfeldian riffs on everything from coupons to flotation devices. Hand, meanwhile, remains an amusing but vague stick figure of a sidekick, an autodidact with thug tendencies.
Will wants to bestow his money on poor people, but interacting with them embarrasses him. So he and Hand dream up schemes to detach themselves from the act of charity. They hand people wads of cash for directions, overtip cabbies, draw a treasure map. Sometimes they enjoy themselves (“We were creating art there,” Will marvels after one successful exchange), but more often, money pollutes their encounters. After an uplifting game of basketball with some Senegalese kids, they give one Chicago Bulls fan $300; then the boy’s brother demands money, soiling the purity of their generous act. Eggers hits on something quintessentially American in this tangle of good intentions and condescension. But the novel churns through the subject too schematically, spelling out the power gap between these American boys and everyone else.
Rushing through towns at the speed of light, incontinently dropping their cash and their opinions, Will and Hand belong to the Jackass School of Tourism. They live for pranks like leaping from their car onto a moving horse-drawn cart or taping an envelope of money to a donkey along with a sign that bears lyrics to an ’80s heavy-metal song: “Here I am rock you like a hurricane.” They treat their life like a madcap movie (Paul Bowles meets Evel Knievel!), but reading Eggers’s listless prose feels more like sitting through some unhinged friend’s blurry vacation photos. Even Will’s mom cuts him short when he calls her from Africa: “I don’t need every last minute, hon.”
Recently, New Republic critic Ruth Franklin asked: “Is Zadie Smith a pseudonym for Dave Eggers?”, calling her latest novel “a full-blown McSweeney’s production in all but name.” You Shall Know Our Velocity definitively squashes this cute conspiracy theory: Even without a decent storyline, Smith’s prose whirls across the page, whereas Eggers’s novel limps along, strangely static. We only experience Eggers’s velocity in a few sharp scenes that convey the duo’s disorientation. Driving though Marrakech’s labyrinthine streets one night, sandwiched between two taxis, the guys freak out, believing they’re going to be murdered. Suddenly, the taxis disappear, leaving them baffled and ecstatic. Out of their depth on foreign turf and dogged by thoughts of their friend’s death, Will and Hand thrash around looking for some extreme experience to shock them back to life.
Despite the international backdrop, Eggers stages too much of the action within Will’s head, a claustrophobic space staffed with a retinue of busybodies who provide running meta-commentary. Will, finding these dialogues as tedious as I do, calls for an end to the internal dissension. “I wanted agreement now. . . . I wanted only truth, as simple as you could serve it, straight down the middle, not the product of dialectic but sui generis: Truth!”
Eggers loves the bombast of Grand Pronouncements like this (especially when punctuated with italics or an exclamation point). His proclamations suggest the thwarted romanticism of someone who’d like to believe in Genius, Beauty, Virtue, etc., but who cannot resist undercutting his own yearnings for conviction and commitment with a knowing smirk. There was a certain freshness to these goofy distancing effects circa A Heartbreaking Work; now it just reads like numb shtick.