You Shall Know Our Velocity!

Guest Reviewer: Sophie Leigh NagelbergYou Shall Know Our Velocity! by Dave Eggers

Author: Dave Eggers
Publisher: Vintage Books (2003)
Number of Pages: 353
How long it took me to read: Less than a week (Had I not been interrupted by life’s many tasks, I wouldn’t have put it down at all!)
Where I bought this book: Ravenswood Used Books (Chicago)
ISBN: 1-4000-3354-3
Supplement: Sacrament (from McSweeney’s)
This is a link to an additional 49 pages written from the perspective of Hand, the best friend of the book’s protagonist.  It’s playful, in that it refutes much of what happens in the book.
Word of warning:
save this for after you finish the book in its entirety!  It might make you think differently about the story…and about the central character.

Like a Moth to a Flame

I was eager to get my hands on any material by Dave Eggers after reading his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, in which he reveals the death of both his parents and the struggle of raising his younger brother.  I found Eggers’ style to be bold; his writing reflects on such serious issues with optimism and playfulness.  And yet, the heartbreak of the story isn’t lost.  I sometimes struggle with writing on emotionally charged topics because they come across as heavy-handed. Eggers does just the opposite; there are traces of cheerfulness and triumph throughout the story.  I wanted to read You Shall Know Our Velocity! just so that I could continue my relationship with the author.  In fact, I had no idea what the novel was about when I picked it up, but I’m very glad I did.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “How did we get to twenty-seven without ever trying that? Jumping between buildings? Everyone wants to do that.” (p.309)

4. “And although I know the sun is gas and the moon rock, still I wonder why the moon’s circumference would be so clear, its edges so crisp—cut from cardboard with scissors.” (p.38)

3. “At this point there were good days, good weeks, when we pretended that it was acceptable that Jack had lived at all, that his life had been, in its truncated way, complete.” (p.2)

2. “We were thirteen and we had to react violently to the world. We’d seen its rules and the demons it allows to live among us. We killed the cow to express our outrage.” (p.260)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “All I ever wanted was to know what to do. In these last months I’ve had no clue, I’ve been paralyzed by the quiet, and for a moment something spoke to me, and we came here, or came to Africa, and intermittently there were answers, intermittently there was a chorus and they sang to us and pointing, and were watching and approving but just as often there was silence, and we stood blinking under the sun, or under the black sky, and we had to think of what to do next.” (p.303)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: élan (noun)

Definition (Source: Merriam-Webster): vigorous spirit or enthusiasm
Synonyms: flamboyance, flair, style, confidence, elegance
Origins: 1864; from French ‘eslan’ rush; from ‘(s’)eslancer’ to rush
As in: “And as much as I value the efficiency and professional élan of the library staff, I’d recently begun to worry about a new wrinkle in their procedures” (p.31)

New Word: katabatic (adjective)

Definition (Source: Merriam-Webster): relating to or being a wind produced by the flow of cold dense air down a slope (as of a mountain or glacier) in an area subject to radiational cooling
Origins: 1918 from Greek ‘katabatos’ descending, to go down
As in: “…and at the desk we were told our flight was canceled; the airport in Kangerlussuaq was closed because of winds.

‘It can’t be,’ I said.

‘The katabatic winds,’ Hand said.” (p.22)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“Whilst and after reading You Shall Know Our Velocity! I wrote a short story titled The Life Force.  It’s a true story that tells of sharing the burden of grief with a best friend in high school after the death of a mutual friend.  In the story, I reflect on the relationship we developed as my friend became my partner in grief—she, playing the role of the more logical, level-headed one, and me, the more mischievous of the two.

“While exploring my own writing style, I attempted to emulate Eggers’ tone. Here are a few excerpts:

“I remember that day we left school, walked right past the office and out the front entrance of that proud building with its statuesque columns. We weren’t worried about the faculty ready to send us back to the classroom.  We took the right to come and go as we pleased, to do what we wanted. We had been through so much—too much.  It was our senior year at a new school. My head was in another world, you know? I think you understood. You understand. I was so cynical then and so proud of myself, like I had everything figured out.  Now I see how much I needed attention. I hurt so badly.  Everything hurt.  We thought we were pretty clever and all, sneaking around, on and off campus in the middle of the day, while I was losing my mind.”

“The road leading to the cemetery begins to swerve and wrap around great Southern oaks with their giant arms of shelter.  Beat up Cadillacs rest in oil dotted driveways and overgrown plants spill over onto scrap pieces of junk, rejected and forgotten.  In this corner of the world, life seemed so bizarre, more than it already was.  I would eventually come to think of that last road before the iron gate entrance of the cemetery as a passageway, like the transition between life and death, a slow morphing of shapes and feelings.  I imagined that driving down this road must be like dying, like this process of lifting gradually away from reality.  I felt so distanced from reality that year.  Time stood still for us, and we let it.  We slipped away into oblivion, ignoring much of what we had to do.  At that point, going to class and filling out college applications had lost all relevance.”

“We said nothing because there was nothing to say.  Everything that could have happened had already happened.  Death had swooped down like a bat and taken him from me.  There was no fixing anything, only going forward.  The world was still turning.  I was still alive and I had no choice but to keep moving.  We drove back to school, late for class but we weren’t afraid.  We had just been to the other side.  We could do whatever we wanted.  We were young and shattered.  What else could life do to us? We were invincible now.  We were unbreakable.”

“For me, one of the most interesting aspects of You Shall Know Our Velocity! is the obscure thoughts Will has along the way.  For example, at one point, he becomes obsessed with the way in which the forests in other parts of the world look just the same as the forests back home.  Through this revelation, he finds himself missing Jack, since Jack can’t be there to notice the similarities for himself.  Will often goes off on these inner tangents where we see how he is struggling with the loss.  Eggers doesn’t just tell us how Will feels, he shows us.  These were the moments when I felt I could relate to the character the most.”

“In the end, the story deals with death and moving on. I found it to be both gut-wrenching and cleverly humorous. Eggers tells a tale of grief with such grace that as the reader, I felt that I, too, had lost a friend.  I became completely entangled in the feats of the protagonist, Will, as he and Hand took on the ridiculous task of traveling the globe in less than a week, determined to plan as little of their trip as possible.  Their destinations were only dependent upon their moods and the availability of airline tickets.  Along the way, they gave away large sums of inherited money in untraditional and often absurd ways.”

“I enjoyed reading the supplement material later published by McSweeney’s because I found it to be so surprising.  Through Hand’s perspective, we find out how unreliable Will was in telling his side of the story.  It didn’t change the meaning of You Shall Know Our Velocity! for me, but I can see why someone could see it that way.  The new perspective adds some really interesting twists to the story line.”

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