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You Shall Know Our Velocity
by Dave Eggers
ISBN 1400033543 / 9781400033546 / 1-4000-3354-3
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You Shall Know Our Velocity is the first novel from Dave Eggers, author of the bestselling memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Although this is a work of fiction, its themes, preoccupations, and even its pair of central characters will feel strikingly familiar to readers of his unorthodox autobiography. Where A Heartbreaking Work& charted, among many, many other things, the death of Eggers' parents, this book's narrator, Will Chmielewski, is mourning the loss of his childhood friend, Jack. In the wake of Jack's death, Will, who came into $80,000 dollars after his silhouette was used as a logo on a lightbulb, embarks on a trip around the world with another old friend, Hand. They will not only make their wayward circumnavigation in a week--"we'd see what we could see in six, six and half days, and then go home"--but they'll also dispose of Will's lightbulb money along the way.
Flying from Chicago, these twenty-something, philanthropic Phileas Foggs (Generation Y's Bob and Bing, in fact) hope to start their odyssey in Greenland and finish on the top of Cheops pyramid in Egypt. Of course bad weather, visa regulations, the intransigence of airline authorities and "the unmitigated slowness of moving from place to place" consistently thwart their plans. ("Should we not have teleporting by now?" an exasperated Will asks at one point.) Journeying to Senegal through Morocco and onto Estonia and Latvia, the hapless duo devise increasingly bizarre means to, arbitrarily, hand money to needy locals. They try to pin wads of notes onto goats, over-tip pole dancers, hire cabs for minute distances and create a "real treasure" hunt, replete with map.
There is a curious unreality about how Will and Hand interact with the people they meet. Like Eggers and his younger brother Toph in A Heartbreaking Work, they've retreated into a kind of male adolescent fantasy bubble where the world is a largely a game for their own amusement. The idea of rich yanks dolling out cash willy nilly is, as Eggers is well aware, itself slightly tasteless. The narrative is however, almost mercilessly, metacritical--Will's every worry, doubt, and guilty reflection is taken to its nth degree. Eggers' self-ironising style is as infuriating and as beguiling as ever, but this is a far less tricksy book than his memoir. There are fewer typographical gimmicks and, while it would be impossible ever to describe Eggers' prose as restrained, his writing is less ostentatious here and for that reason all the more impressive. It's simply a quite startling and occasionally tender piece of work, buzzing with annoyingly magnificent sentences, ideas and jokes. --Travis Elborough [via]