RIGA - How about this as a good premise for a novel? Try and travel all around the world in the space of one week, while giving away $80,000 in dribs and drabs to anybody who basically looks like they deserve it.
That crudely sums up the plot for "You Shall Know Our Velocity," Dave Eggers' second book and first novel. Eggers' first book, the memoir "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," established him as a major force in American literature, earning him an abundance of praise and dollars all round.
Page one of "YSKOV" begins on the front cover, just to let you know from the outset that you're in for a very novel sort of a novel. The story begins with the two main characters, Will and Hand, trying to figure out how they can get around the world and its time zones in a good old American week (that's all the time Hand can get off work).
Will has come into the considerable sum of $80,000 after a light bulb manufacturer uses a silhouette of him screwing in a light bulb as its new logo. But Will wants to give away all of it. He wants to give it to people who he thinks really need it. His motives for this are ambiguous and never really explained, but it's clear Will is in a desperate state of mind.
The real thrust of the novel is not so much the trip around the world and the giving away of the money, as Will's frantic attempt to escape his own tortuous thoughts. "My mind has an uncanny knack for organization when it comes to pain," he laments. He is endlessly tormented by memories of his and Hand's best friend, Jack, who was crushed to death in a freak road accident.
Will is also besieged by the recent memory of a terrible beating he received, for which he angrily blames Hand. Throughout the trip, his battered face scares away the very people he wants to try and help. In one particularly disturbing scene, a tooth loosened by the beating comes out while he's eating a granola bar, which he unknowingly chews for a while, until it dawns on him that a granola bar shouldn't be that crunchy.
Of course, nothing works out exactly as Will and Hand plan. They fail to make it around the world, briefly seeing only Dakar, Casablanca, Marrakech, Heathrow Airport, Tallinn and Riga before flying home.
"YSKOV" is a fascinating read but, it has to be said, not a particularly good novel. While Eggers' prose is mesmerizing and tirelessly inventive, it cannot wholly compensate for the intellectual vacuum behind the words.
His ferocious assault on language and novelistic convention, although an impressive feat in itself, lacks any real insight or penetration for all that. Will (symbolizing the mind) has a series of imaginary dialogues with Hand (symbolizing action) which are at times embarrassingly naive. "YSKOV" may travel all round the world, but, philosophically speaking, it's something of a dead end.
Since Will is not shy of judging the world and the people he meets, so we in turn are not shy of judging him. Where, for example, the French novelist Michel Houellebecq's tragically pathetic and phlegmatic characters wholly engage our sympathies, so that whatever they do seems justified, no matter how repugnant it is, Will's tendency to pontificate only exposes the vacuity of his ideas.
The real triumph of Eggers' prose is how beautifully it captures Will's emotional turmoil, his violent lurches from joy to despair:
"Yeah," I said. "Latvians are the best!"
Twenty minutes later:
"These people are diseased!"
The story meanders and digresses constantly, in a stream of lovingly observed details. This is where Eggers is a wonder, vividly bringing the world to life through the inventiveness of his language. The scene in the Latvian woods where Will and Hand decide to jump from one tree to another, just to experience the joy of doing it, is truly magnificent. It makes you want to run outdoors and bolt up the nearest tree.
But, ultimately, "YSKOV" doesn't fulfill its immense promise. Eggers is a formidably talented writer and is way ahead of most of his contemporaries, but he has yet to learn that it is the idea that makes the story, not the other way round.
"You Shall Know Our Velocity," by Dave Eggers, Vintage, 2003 (available from Amazon books).