New work by a staggering genious
There's a fantastic exchange midway into Dave Eggers' new book You Shall Know Our Velocity, in which the narrator, Will, details his recent adventures to his mom via trans-Atlantic phone call. Will is in the midst of a seven day, round-the-world, giving spree. With the help of his friend Hand, he is trying to unload $32,000 through independent acts of random charity, and simultaneously come to grips with the recent death of his lifelong friend Jack. In the middle of explaining the impulsive and biased techniques he uses to determine who receives his money along the way, Will's mom interrupts, asking, "Don't you think it's all a little condescending?" Will, after much internal consideration, replies "I just think you're overthinking it, Mom."
I still have a stain from where the irony dripped off the page and ran down my sleeve.
Will is ostensibly a stand-in for Eggers, employing the same voice that carried his first autobiographical work, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Anyone who read Heartbreaking knows there is one thing you can expect from Dave Eggers, and that is overthinking. An epically ironic, endlessly self-reflective and emotionally sweeping book, Heartbreaking boldly lays out its emotions, then examines the laying out, and then examines the examination. While Velocity never manages to create the same urgency in its emotional core, the plot is uniquely suited to Eggers' other priorities.
Velocity might be best described as an updated On The Road-a mad, whirlwind, buddy comedy and travelogue, with Will as the introspective Sal Paradise, and Hand as the impulsive, Dean Moriarty-esque contrast. This time the boys are going global. But don't worry, Eggers employs a Kerouacian vigor in ignoring the distinct character of the places they visit, yielding instead to Will's internal self-preoccupation. Eggers also prevents Will's excess of funds from compromising the passivity of their journey. They don't hitchhike, but they do refuse to create an itinerary, insisting instead on going wherever the next flight that doesn't require international visas will take them.
But where On The Road is notorious for the haphazard speed with which Kerouac pounded it out, everything about Velocity is constructed to feel intentional-Eggers wants you to know that he's thought about the implications of his story. Every implication. He makes sure that Will touches on nearly every problematic aspect of traveling around the world handing out money, from the power implicit in acts of charity to the complicated factors that inform the worthiness of need, and from the benign racism he and his friend display to the assumption that those they randomly select even need or want their money.
The distinctive physical characteristics of the book are designed to illustrate that Eggers gave as much thought to its appearance as he has Will give to himself. The absence of a title page, and the decision to begin the book's narrative on the outside of the front cover, are intended to encourage investigation into the book's physical makeup. After several hundred pages of trying to decipher the purpose of each exaggerated break in the text and sparingly-used graphic, eventually even a nonsensical typo will feel loaded.
So it's hard not to take it a step further, and examine the peculiar circumstances surrounding the book's release with the same obsessive attention. Eggers chose to self-publish Velocity through his own McSweeney's Books, and make the limited first printing of Velocity available in only 100 independent bookstores across the country, including Brunswick's own Gulf of Maine Books. But this act of defiance to the publishing establishment, and selfless support of struggling independent bookstores actually bears a striking resemblance to Will and Hand's loaded undertaking.
"The McSweeney's 100", those stores that won the honor of carrying Eggers' new book, did so only after agreeing to carry every other book McSweeney's publishes. Though limiting the carriers of his book certainly ensures that only these independent book stores will profit off its sales, it also restricts access to the book, simultaneously forcing more people to order directly from the McSweeney's website (therefore cutting out the middleman altogether) and implying that only those readers in areas that can support one of these independent bookstores (or who prove their loyalty to Eggers by making the trek to a distant one) are worthy of Velocity.
Even if you ignore the blatant manipulation at work here, and focus on the act of charity towards independent bookstores, you can't deny that the assumption that selling a couple copies of Eggers' book will have any real affect on independent bookstores' survival is just a touch condescending. But then again, maybe that's just overthinking it.