Two Angry Men

You Shall Know Our Velocity

Two Angry Men

You Shall Know Our Velocity

Two Angry Men
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 31 2002 6:35 PM

You Shall Know Our Velocity

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Dan,

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Reading your last entry, I'm struck—as I was at the beginning of this conversation, when you talked about being terrified to dislike this book—by how reading Eggers makes people worry about whether they are, as you put it, a "Good Reader" as opposed to a "Mean/Jaded/Skimming Reader." There are certainly lots of authors who make people worry about whether they're smart enough or cool enough, but Eggers makes people worry about whether they're good enough (open-hearted enough?) and somehow does so while still maintaining a certain kind of cool-kid distance.

In that sense, the writer that Eggers is most like, I think, is J.D. Salinger. Stylistically, as more than a few people have pointed out, there are obvious similarities. But I think the connection is deeper than that. Salinger's dedication to Raise High the Roof Beam reads: "If there is an amateur reader still left in the world or anybody who just reads and runs, I ask him or her, with untellable affection and gratitude, to split the dedication of this book four ways with my wife and children." And that love of the "amateur reader"—and that implied rejection of the too-knowing reader and the mean-spirited critic—seems very close to Eggers' own stance.

Similarly, Salinger and Eggers share an affection for the childlike adult and for children specifically. At the very end of You Shall Know Our Velocity there's a great scene where Will has a conversation with a little Mexican girl named Tiffany Cervantes, who seems to embody all the possibilities for affection and openness and family love that he's been hoping for. The resonances between that scene and the end of Catcher in the Rye, where Holden watches Phoebe ride the carousel and feels suddenly very happy, seem obvious enough. And both writers write—in bold ways—about the need to love everyone, to put away our adult sophistication and defensiveness and skepticism and understand that, as at the end of Franny and Zooey, the Fat Lady is all of us, and we're all worthy of love. As the cover of the new McSweeney's, Eggers' journal, said, "Keep It Sweet. Do No Harm." (Which is, let's face it, good advice.)

The problem is that loving everyone only gets you so far in the world, and I think that's the source of the ambivalence a lot of us feel about both Salinger and Eggers. At their best, they're genuinely inspiring. They make things seem possible, and they remind you of what the everyday world makes easy to forget. We do lose something important when we grow up, and I believe in drawing carefully designed treasure maps and leaping out of trees. But at the same time, there are things children can't do, feelings they can't have, help they can't give, which is what I think you were getting at in your comments about the scene with Jack's mom. More important, if you're looking for people who are as pure-hearted and true as Phoebe or Tiffany Cervantes, you're going to be disappointed with most adults. Everyone is going to fall short. That's why everyone looks like a phony in Holden's eyes.

There's also something unsettling about someone who's always talking about loving everyone. It makes you wonder if he's saying it to convince himself, and if he wants to love everyone—if he wants to love random strangers like Tiffany Cervantes, of whom Will thinks, "I wanted to say first and foremost that I love her"—because it's too hard, or too painful, to love the people next to him, people who might do things like betray him or die. I don't think this makes that desire to love everyone untrue, and it doesn't make the impulse any less worthy. We should keep it sweet and try to do no harm. But there is a tension at the heart of these books that all the hopeful invocations cannot eradicate.

The striking thing about both Salinger and Eggers, after all, is just how angry they are. Holden wears his people-shooting cap. Eggers, in AHWOSG, mentions as a possible description of the book "A Work of Hatred and Guilt." Will dreams of finding and destroying the thugs who beat him, and as Jack is dying he says to God, "What makes you think I won't stalk you to the corners of the earth and make you pay for this? ... I shall have waters of blood cast you away!" So much of You Shall Know's power comes, in fact, from this irreconcilable conflict between all the hate and grief that Will feels and the love and hope that he sometimes finds but doesn't ultimately, I think, believe he can ever keep. In the end, after all, Salinger's Seymour Glass kills himself after talking to a little girl. And Will ends up dead, too, after racing as fast as he can away from his own life. It's a cliché, I suppose, to talk about how a book that seems on its surface lighthearted is really dark, but I think that's the way You Shall Know Our Velocity is. And it's a stronger book for it, too.

Oh, and one last thing: I am Ronin.

Best,
Jim

James Surowiecki writes the Financial Page column in The New Yorker. Daniel Zalewski is an editor at the New York Times Magazine.