“Instrumental in traveling is the participation in it, the belief in progress, the witnessing of passage.” – Dave Eggers
Dave Eggers’ first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, is a travel journal with a lot of internal gyrations, a.k.a. dialogue from the narrator, whose mind “hovers and churns.” I just finished reading the 400-page book on the Kindle, and now I want to reflect on some of its themes and stylistic devices.
Will, the protagonist and narrator, departs Chicago O’Hare with his best bud Hand, for Senegal, Morocco, Estonia and Latvia. The trip is motivated by their friend’s death in a car accident and the consequent desire to offload $80,000 that Will came by unexpectedly (thanks to his silhouette being used on a new lightbulb package).
Adam Mars-Jones of The Observer notes that the book “might be a bleak and uneasy satire on American ignorance and cultural consumerism, with Will’s and Hand’s currency-scattering mission only slightly exaggerating the ridiculousness of over-ambitious holidays – If-this-is-Monday-this-must-be-Tallinn-or-maybe-Riga. Yet that doesn’t seem to be the intention. The title of the book is mystical-technical (finally explained as the motto of the Jumping People, an apocryphal South American tribe), but the style is pushy-flashy, dedicated to producing elaborate effects.”
That’s a solid read by Mars-Jones. The two characters are ridiculous in the way that two “normal dudes” who grew up in Milwaukee might be. Hand and Will are not Wayne and Garth, but they’re not all that far away from these overly-exaggerated characters.
Eggers makes some interesting choices in the construction of the book. He indicates to the reader when Will is talking to himself by placing an em dash in front of a thought. So, you’ll be reading along in a plot-driven passage, and then be dealt a series of dashes, with inner imaginings of the somewhat paranoid, totally addled narrator.
Eggers also time shifts the story, and puts the narrative in Hand’s hands about two-thirds of the way in, before circling back around for a Will-narrated finish. Which is weird, and a bit frustrating because Hand contradicts the things we as readers have come to believe. It does work to shed more light on the situation, but it’s not a fine light, where all looks happy and good.
Ultimately, You Shall Know Our Velocity, is a book with a message. The message is don’t waste time. And don’t run from things, like time, that can’t be outrun. It’s a wonderful philosophy, delivered by clowns in this instance, but that’s okay. We don’t always want our philosophies from a professor, poet or pundit.