25 August 2004

Review: You Shall Know Our Velocity! (4/5)

I know that I say this after every book, or at least I say this after many books, many books that I remember reading, but I feel like I just have to say "wow" after reading this. There are such quotes that I'd like to give away. So many lyrical quotes where the writing is So There that I wish I'd have written or dog-eared them along the way so that I could give them now.

I realized this three days ago, maybe four, but this book, You Shall Know Our Velocity!, is our Catcher in the Rye. Ours meaning our generation of maybe late 20s to (me) late thirties. I had recently read that, Catcher in the Rye, maybe a year ago, for the first time, and was stunned by its simplicity, naivety, and power. It exposed a rawness of youth and of earnestness, one that I still understand and am still baffled by in myself, one that Ayn Rand can only mimic (we actually read her when we were young?!?) and that you realize immediately as real. Not phony. Eggers' book does the same thing.

Only he does it with such a modern (sorry:) sensibility. Whateverthehellthatis. The book and the themes within the book beg to be symbols and beg for you to mock them as symbols. The premise is a narrative of a one-week-period where two friends attempt to travel around the world (in one week) and give away $32,000. The obvious symbols are American affluence, waste, youthful wanderlust, and the (always) anxiety of influence--history pressing down on us. What Eggers does with them are his own invention and worth the trip.

An example of his writing (simple, effective, and still memorable now, at page 360 of 400 total):

What did we expect of Riga? Something more drab, with less panache. But good God, this Riga, when we plowed through its suburbs and into the core of the place, was glittery and so alive. Full of stores still lit at 7 P.M., and hotels casinos, restaurants, people going home in big coats and tall furry hats, the huge cable buses, whatever you call those things on tracks and attached from above, full of commuters rehashing in their head easy but punishing mistakes and wondering about God and his gifts long-withheld.

The simple, gushing opening that punctuates then rambles (the last sentence is 2/3s of the paragraph) from bare awe to an epiphany. That's typical Eggers, taking the same form as his books take, the two books that I've read now, in a single paragraph.

The narrative voice was almost too anguished to read at times. It felt exhausting, the narrator Feels So Much All At Once, at times, but there's so much undeniable honesty that you put up with it. And that's the characteristic that I would compare with Catcher in the Rye (although I don't want to over-emphasize that comparison).

Another quote late in the book (though I'm giving nothing away), from one of the many unmailed postcards to the narrator's two nieces (affectionately nicknamed Mo and Thor) talking about his and his friend Hand's experiences. Their interjected conversation is omitted:

Mo! Thor! (Did you know that in Scandinavia they always use the exclamation mark in greeting? I think this is true, even though Hand told me this. Remember Hand? He took you to the aquarium and argued with the tour guide.) So I have advice for you guys. I don't want you to actually use it. I just want you to hear it, have it, sometime after the fact--after it's useful. Don't listen to me. Advice so rarely finds its intended audience. It's like the sword in the stone--you leave it there, maybe someday someone finds it useful. Sorry, people--we're driving through Latvia and I can't vouch for my state of mind. 1. Thoughts are made of water and water always finds a way. 2. If you can't dodge the water, run.
3. There are bears and there are small dogs. Be strong like bear! If they take out your teeth, sit on the dogs. Bears always forget they can just sit on the dogs. Sit on the dogs!
4. If your house is haunted bring in your friends and start tearing the walls down. How can they haunt a house that you take apart? Aha!


I would like to have included all of the single sentences, paragraphs, extended jokes or scenes of pathos that were so affecting throughout the book--but that's the book itself, and well worth the read. Two more quotes. First, the opening sentence, originally part of the first paragraph printed in large text on the front cover of the hardback: Everything within takes place after Jack died and before my mom and I drowened in a burning ferry in the cool tannin-tinted Guaviare River, in east-central Columbia, with forty-two locals we hadn't yet met. And this, buried in the copyright page of my paperback edition: Previously retitled as Sacrament.

[ posted by sstrader on 25 August 2004 at 12:27:19 AM in Language & Literature ]