Dave Eggers’ writing is the literary equivalent of spreading a canvas on some grass, weighting each corner with stones, climbing a ladder, then splashing down bucketfuls of paint (lapis lazuli, crimson and jade), descending and having a nap while it dries, before expertly chipping off the ugly globs with a tiny file. You Shall Know Our Velocity is the kind of book that probably gets up and goes about its private business when you leave the room. It definitely wins all manner of silent arguments with your other novels while you are sleeping.
Following the unexpected death of their friend Jack, Will and Hand set out from Milwaukee, determined to give away $38,000 in cash in one week. The conditions of their round the world airfare require them to move west, without backtracking. The need to keep moving in order to make it back in time, and the vagaries of visas and time zones get in the way pretty much immediately. It’s also much harder than anticipated to give away so much money, because of course they can’t give it to just anyone. It has to feel right.
This is a book that understands the pain of being simultaneously confronted with the size of the world and the limitations of being allocated only one life. What about all the other lives you could live! The places you could go and things you could do, with more time. ‘We’d have a motherfucking shitload of dogs! Horses. Peacocks. Oh to live among peacocks. I’d seen them once in person and they defied so many laws of color and gravity that they had to be mad geniuses waiting to take over everything.’
Whatever you do, do not make the mistake of thinking that this novel has no strong emotional base. This writing is modern, self-assured and cool. But this is more than an empty display of technical ability. It is much more than a diversion from everyday life, despite its capacity to entertain with its streetsmart humour and to delight with well-placed departures from orthodoxy. Eggers is not afraid to get close to the edge of the most frightening craters that we peer into while alone in the dark, alone in our own heads.
As in subsequent works like A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and the more recent Zeitoun, he does not skirt around death, guilt or anger. Here is a writer with honesty, heart and the ability to write it all. You should read this book. But that isn’t why you’ll read it. You’ll read it, in a hurry, because you won’t be able to stop yourself.