HERE I AM — ROCK YOU LIKE A HURRICANE!
And so you step into Powell's City of Books
and lo and behold you see a hardcover by Dave Eggers with the following on the cover:
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, in east-central Columbia, with forty-two locals we hadn't yet met. It was a clear and eyeblue day, that day, as was the first day of this story, a few years ago in January, on Chicago's north side, in the opulent shadow of Wrigley and with the wind coming low and searching off the jagged half-frozen lake. I was inside, very warm, walking from door to door.
Backgrounds and Foregrounds
Do you like to read? Chances are that if you are here, you do. Have you heard of Dave Eggers? Timothy McSweeney? (just a tomb down in the old cemetery). Back in the days of the era of the dot com, in San Francisco one couldn't seem to escape the growing forest of Eggers and David Sedaris. Everyone on public transportation was reading them, which is strange. Usually when one is noticing a so-called cultural phenomenon, not so many people are hip on it. San Francisco was different then, and Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius had the sort of false pomposity that appealed to the stylishly wicked of the Bay Area's newest (and soonest to be dead) working class. Nevermind that the origins of his style, postmodernism in the vein of David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, and a touch of Tom Robbins had been going on for some time— nevermind it because it's an underlying process, on some self-determined progression to the art of being... Never mind that at all.
Eggers was remaking his immediate reality with his own image. Transforming the mundane into the quirky, the fascinating, the hilarious, and the absurd while simultaneously breaking some kind of wall and revealing a true nature of expression that resonated with readers very strongly. Underneath all these literary defenses was someone just struggling to get by in a world he felt totally unprepared for.
AHWSG was the story of Dave Eggers' life up to a certain point. He later created an appendix to it for his paperback edition. After the success of his memoir/creative non-fiction/fictional reality, Eggers funneled the funds into his McSweeney's magazine project, which proved very succesful (and is now attracting names like Michael Chabon and Sherman Alexie.) He used his printing connections in Iceland to produce David Byrne's most excellent The New Sins— but... where was Dave? Dave was busy working on a novel of his own. But he dropped that one, stopped writing it. And then he wrote this one, You Shall Know Our Velocity.
Will, the narrator of this novel, holds a heavy weight. His best friend Jack recently was killed when a big-rig plowed over his car, crushing him to death. Will, Jack, and his other friend, Hand had big plans of raising big families together out in the midwest. One big happy family, like a smaller version of Everything, Kansas. But then Jack died and with him all of their dreams, and all of their love for the world.
Will is a contractor. He fixes roofs, he builds houses, these are the things he digs. One day he was screwing in a light bulb and his boss took a photograph. That photograph somehow ended up in the hands of a company that makes lightbulbs. They wanted to use Will's sillouette (standing on a ladder, screwing in a lightbulb) as the packaging for their bulbs. They gave him $80,000 to do this.
After the death of his friend, and his general miasma of loathing and self-pity, the very well-drawn character of Will feels undeserving of his money. He doesn't know what to use it for. He has no solutions, and feels that it should be his at all. He wants to get rid of it. All of it.
He and Hand decide to take a trip around the world to give the money to everyone they decide is needy. They travel to Senegal, Casablanca, and elsewhere only to find (and as anyone who reads literature knows) that there is nothing for them out there. That they can only find nothing, and no peace will come. That with every dollar they give, they are making a decision— a judgment, and the question becomes: are they capable of making such judgments?
They do their whole trip in less than a week, providing many funny moments as they rush against time to get in the air and onward to another destination. The book reads very fast.
Style & Quotations
Dave Eggers likes to stretch the medium a bit, which I commend him for. One of the primary problems of working with printed and bound text in this day and age is finding ways to revitalize the medium. Critics and analysts have been crying dead donkey to literature for a long time now, but still it persists, and Eggers' stylistic tics are one thing that keeps things moving. He includes pictures within the text, including the above-mentioned packaging for light bulbs. Some pictures are in full color. All are cleverly used and integral to the text.
Will, as a character, is tormented by his self. Internally, he always thinking, creating conversations with people he feel are threatening him. He imagines
And from this system, his torment begins. He is constantly reminded of the pain of Jack's death, and the crushing pain of getting the shit kicked out of him a few weeks before. The flashback of his getting beaten up is graphic and resonate, and very relevant to Will's character.
a desk. The desk is located at the top of a green hill, about two hundred feet above a soft meadow dotted with tulips and something like cotton. Winding through the meadow is a stream, narrow and quick, which rushes with the sound of shushing and sniffing. The desk has a magnificient view, and the air around the desk and on the meadow is about seventy-two degrees. It's balmy and bright, and the sky is blue but not too blue, and in all it would seem to be the perfect place to have a desk. A desk where you could observe things and do the work that had to be done. The one catch is that the desk sits above a large structure, the entrance to which is just behind and below the desk. This building extends ten stories, down. The structure has been dug down into the whole of the hill and houses a large staff of humanoid people, oily and pale and without hair—they are moles and look like it, with huge square yellow teeth and mouths of fire—all of whom are in charge of keeping track of and retrieving its contents, a mixture of records, dossiers, quotations, historical documents, timelines, fragments, cultural studies— the most glorious and banal and bloody memories.
Let's say that I like having this structure in existence, and that I value its presence, and that I have easy access to it. If I want something, a file on something, all I need to do is summon it and one of the library's staffers, who again are all hairless, havy ruby-colored eyes and wear white, will bring it to me, usually without any delay.
Hand is just like someone you know. Hand learns everything that he knows from the Internet.
"What are you wearing?"
He (Hand) was wearing a shirt declaring I AM PROUD OF MY BLACK HERITAGE. On a blond man with swishy pants it looked all wrong.
"Where'd you get that?"
"No one's going to get the joke here. Or whatever it is. It's not even a joke."
"No one will know. And it's not a joke. I liked the shirt. Did you see the back?"
I nodded slowly, to communicate the pain it caused me. The back said ROGERS PARK WOMEN'S VOLLEYBALL.
Hand knew things like this... for twenty years I'd heard this shit, from first grade, when he claimed you'd get worms if you touched your penis (I used plastic baggies, to pee, till I was eight)—and always this mixture of the true, the almost-true and the apocryphal—he'd veer within the emporium of anecdote like an angry drunk, but all of his stories he stood steadfastly behind, never with a twinge of doubt or even allowances for your own. If you didn't know these things, you were willfully ignorant but not without hope. He prefaced his fact spewals with "Well, you probably already know this, but the thing about zinc mining is ..."
The Final Analysis
This book is a triumph for self-publishing. McSweeney's Books did a VERY limited run of these hardcover editions, selling them only at independent bookstores and through their website. They have sold just about every copy they printed, and this is very encouraging for the world of self-publishing.
There are occaisonal errors in the book, both grammatical and typesetting. They can be overlooked, and in fact add a charm to the pressing. The quote at the very top of this writeup is the outside cover of the sleeveless hardcover. The book starts on the left side of the cardboard as soon as you open the book. There is no wasting time with title pages and copyright notices. You know these things.
I enjoyed this book wholeheartedly. It at once recalls On the Road, Skinny Legs and All, the Beach (the novel, not the movie), Siddhartha, and a mess of other things, while still being single-handedly all Eggers' game. It was a blast to plow through and I can imagine my self reading this a second time somewhere in the future.
And though it makes no pretenses of being a book for a generation, a book that is supposed to mean something big; it ends up that it could, that it perhaps even does. There is something that triumphs inside the heart of this novel that while it may not insure its position in any kind of academically-sponsored canon—I will always consider a mighty helping of contemporary literature.