After my last literary foray, a near month spent immersed in post-revolution France and epic revenge, I had to opt for something more pacey and contemporary. My brain works like that. Too much of the same thing and I stop being able to focus. But that’s the beauty of literature. There is always something different, there’s just so much of it that you never have to get in a rut.
You spend enough time on the Internet and you hear Dave Eggers’ name banded about a lot. He seems, as a contemporary writer, to divide the ranks hugely, and probably belongs in the tumblr-reblog hall of fame along with Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Safran Foer. That sort of thing (having read, loved and blogged about the two Jonathan’s previously) does not remotely put me off, so when I stumbled upon a copy of You Shall Know Our Velocity! in my favourite used bookshop I had to pick it up.
As the title would suggest, the book is nonstop movement. The Kerouac comparisons are thick and fast on the back cover, and yes, it is easy to see Will, the narrator, and his friend Hand as the character cast of an On the Road remake, but to my mind, the best and most rewarding comparison you can make here is to one Mr. Samuel Beckett. At university I had to read Company, by Beckett, for an experimental literature unit, and it blew my mind. The ever-moving, circular prose kept you trapped in its pace, and the only textual moments of clarity had to do with moments of absolute pain. It almost perfectly mimicked the machinations of trauma. And that’s how I feel about this novel too. yes, it’s a snappy, smart, road novel, but the way it’s written makes you race through it, catching your breath only when the narrator’s mind gets snagged on a painful memory and he gets caught up in it and momentarily stops.
‘You really captured it Will. All those blank spaces, too;’
And like Beckett’s work, You shall Know Our Velocity! is intent on addressing the unsayable. It’s a travel and life narrative where the narrator is preoccupied with his own inability to narrate. Unless Will is caught in a brief moment of absolute pleasure and pain, he is agonizing not about his experience, but about how to capture and convey it all. The frustration concerning the inability to condense and convey your experience is something dear to my heart. I spent a long time at university reading about the failure of language, the failure of literature, the impossibility of the novel as a form post-modernism, and so the struggle between what’s in the head and what ends up on the page is a particular favourite theme of mine. It all boils down to a basic need to be understood as a human being; and while the idea of it being impossible is bleak, the fascinating part is that we still attempt, and keep on attempting it. it’s heartwarming, that striving on to be heard and felt, to try and find a successful format for it. It’s one of the most touching things about Eggers’ writing.
‘It made little sense to leave one’s country if all you’re looking for is scenery and poor people, just as it wouldn’t make sense, really, to cheat on someone you’re cheating with … To travel is selfish – that money could be used for hungry stomachs and you’re using it for hungry eyes, and the needs of the former must trump the latter, right? And are there individual needs? How much disbelief, collectively, must be suspended, to allow for tourism?’
The other thing I thought was particularly spot on about this book is the way the comedy hinges on Will and Hands’ ambivalence about being tourists. They alternate between immersing themselves in experiences and agonizing over whether they are doing the right thing, constantly. I have had similar moments travelling. Like being with an ex and his friends in Barcelona and being horrified with them for taking arty pictures of the protests, or giving my scrunchie (I was a teenager okay? shut up) to a little girl who thought it was pretty in Anjuna market in Goa and wondering if I was being patronizing. Tourism is funny. We all want to be taken seriously and not seen as tourists, even though we so painfully, obviously, are. We all want to do good so as not to feel guilt about our privileged lives, then worry we might be messing things up, patronizing people, or giving too little or too much. It’s a difficult and confusing subject that I am sure everyone thinks about, but it is used to beautifully bittersweet effect by Eggers, and underscores almost all his punchlines.
Reading this, you think Will and Hand are idiots, but you forgive them anyway. They both think the other is an idiot, but forgive him anyway. The book captures that kind of impatient friendship where you know each other inside out but never talk about anything, at least not properly, magnificently. Which goes back to the speaking the unsayable theme. If conveying the experiences of the self is not possible, how can we be expected to know an other? But these guys know each other as much as it is possible to. They’ve seen everything together, and they argue about it and miscommunicate the way all human beings do, and the novel avoids sentimentality by making its emotions as difficult and ugly as they actually are. There’s no poetic beauty in sadness here; it bursts out in hotel rooms in Senegal; or laybys in Latvia. Which, let’s face it, is how such things actually happen, and why can’t there be interest and insight in the quotidian?
Also, before I wrap up; I’d like to make the quick mental leap to the fact that this book quite obviously inspired one of my favourite songs: