Where Eggers and Will Meet

You Shall Know Our Velocity

Where Eggers and Will Meet

You Shall Know Our Velocity

Where Eggers and Will Meet
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 30 2002 11:15 AM

You Shall Know Our Velocity

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Good morning Jim …

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So is Will Chmielewski just Dave Eggers hiding inside the costume of a Polish-American home-refurbisher? (Don't anybody steal this idea for Halloween; I thought of it first!) I see why you ask this, Jim—there are cracks in Will's character that can be best filled in with the spackle of Eggers factoids that many of his fans, for better or worse, keep handy in their reader's toolbox.

Will's overwrought disdain of wealth is his most obvious Eggersian quality. As a guy who sands floors and restores ceilings for a living, Will is no doubt getting by on a working man's salary. An $80,000 "windfall," as he puts it, wouldn't exactly teleport him out of the middle class; after taxes, it would probably allow him to pay off his credit card debt, acquire a car built after 1979, and replace his thrift-store furniture with some umlautted, unpronounceable wares from Ikea.

That the newly wealthy Eggers feels an impulse toward large-scale charity makes sense. (In fact, we know that he's been admirably generous with his own windfall.) Will's feeling that $80,000 is unwanted baggage, however, feels grafted on. Indeed, Eggers doesn't even try that hard to explain this aspect of Will's psychology. "I never wanted a balance in a bank account," Will briefly explains. "I felt so much more comfortable living on the equator just above and below a zero balance." If I read this statement blind, I'd guess it came from a trust-fund kid trying to be a hipster, not from a middle-class college dropout from Milwaukee.

Maybe it's not fair to generalize so broadly. There are many die-hard American socialists who come from hardscrabble backgrounds (OK, there are at least 30 of them). And certainly many low-income Americans give a higher percentage of their income to charity than wealthy ones. Will's attitudes are plausible, if unlikely. I just wish Eggers had given me more context to understand Will's political perspective. That way, perhaps, I wouldn't have constantly raised my eyebrow at Will's assertion that savings aren't necessary and charity should be an extreme sport.

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By the way, when I say that I feel a hunger for more context about a character, I'm not demanding heavy-handed explicitness; when I lamented in my last note that Jack, Will's deceased friend, was a frustratingly vague figure for me, I wasn't demanding that Eggers provide me with a full background check. A dexterous writer like Eggers could have provided, with just a few potent details, a more vivid sense of Jack. One bit about how Jack, a talented athlete, spoiled his coolness factor by always yanking up his athletic socks—suggesting that his lack of hipster qualities gave him a strange nobility—was evocative, but Eggers didn't give me enough tiles to assemble a mosaic. A mosaic, of course, can be missing many pieces and still conjure a glorious image; if too many tiles are absent, however, you can't see anything.

Will shares other qualities with Eggers. The idea that charity, like all things in life, should be seen as play—something kind but also rambunctious and fun—conforms with what readers learn about Eggers through his memoir, in which he celebrated play as the highest of virtues. (Every time I look at the beige walls in my apartment, I wish I had the same sense of careless joy that propelled Eggers and his brother Toph to splatter their home's walls in bright colors but leave the edges blank—walls à la Rothko!) Celebrating boyish horseplay is also a central concern of Velocity. Will loves to describe his grade-school-style games as "art." In the Baltics, for example, Will and Hand hide a pile of cash and then draw a treasure map that they hope to plant somewhere where kids will find it. Much care (in a very McSweeney's way) is lavished on getting the design details just right: The edges of the map, for example, must be burned, because that's the way they look in pirate-adventure movies. The fact that the map is written on graph paper rather than browned parchment is duly bemoaned.

Whizzing a Frisbee to a younger sibling is, as you point out, one of life's great pleasures, something Eggers can describe magnificently. I find Velocity provocative in the way it suggests that adults should revel in play, too. Some readers of this book, I think, would find Will and Hand irritatingly immature. I'm not a romantic about Young Men Celebrating Being Young Men books in general; On the Road, for all I'm concerned, would have been better titled Deadbeat Dads Wasting Their Child-Support Money on Beer (or D.D.W.T.C.S.M.O.B., in Eggersian parlance). But I find Will's and Hand's regressive ways harmless and charming. Better to be a dork who enjoys jumping out of trees in the dark than a lawyer who enjoys stabbing his colleagues in the back. And, as I hinted last time, although I wouldn't support transforming our system of philanthropy from one based on organizations like Doctors Without Borders to one based on treasure maps, I can see the value of playfully inspiring readers, as Eggers does, to engage in random acts of kindness. Yes, it's a bumper sticker, but it's a more appealing worldview than "Shit Happens"—a message that is central to many highly praised novels.

To get back to the "Is-Will-Eggers?" discussion, Will's sense of charity and play do seem much like that of the author. But it would be unfair to say that Will is Eggers. Many qualities of Will are clearly invented. Take Will's total lack of worldly sophistication. Will's sense of the world is pathetically parochial—"I had only ill-formed collages of social-studies textbooks and quickly-flipped travel magazines"—which helps explain why he foolishly thinks one can travel from Mongolia to Qatar to Yemen to Madagascar to Rwanda in a single week. Eggers the globe-trotting author could hardly be so naive.  

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Jim, you smartly observed that compared to Eggers' memoir, Velocity features "fewer formal and stylistic pyrotechnics (though there are enough)." Let's talk about Eggers' literary innovations. Here's one that I loved. Will constantly engages in imaginary "arguments with strangers"—arguments that he always wins. Here's an example:

—You, driving the Lexus.

—Me?

—Yes, you. You paid too much.

—What?

—You paid too much and your soul is spoiled.

—You are right. I have failed but will repent.

This device delightfully captures Will's unwillingness to cut other people slack. It wittily allows us to see the self-righteousness that accompanies Will's charitable impulses. This was brilliant, I thought.

One thing I didn't like was Will's constant underscoring of wonder through exclamation points: "And then we were off again—away!—the highway in view ahead—so close!" There are 400 exclamation points in this novel, I bet. This drove me nuts!!!!!

What about you, Jim? What about Eggers' prose did you admire and dislike?

D

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