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You Shall Know Our Velocity!

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I have a reading problem: I get antsy if I don’t read. So even on a two-week vacation of Spain, I brought two books with me; one or them was You Shall Know our Velocity! by Dave Eggers.

I finished Velocity! in Madrid and was pleasantly surprised at how well it meshed with my then current situation. The story follows two late-20’s friends on a one-week jaunt through Africa and Eastern Europe. The trip was supposed to be “around the world in seven days,” but this proved impossible due to flight schedules and other obstacles. From one day to the next, these guys had no idea where they planned to go. They’d arrive in a city, immediately ask the bookings desk for a list of all outgoing flights, and buy tickets on the spot. This somewhat paralleled my situation – I knew exactly when and which cities I would visit, but I had no plan as to what I’d see or where I’d sleep. Granted, mine is a watered-down version of theirs, but we share a key trait: intentional lack of planning.

Eggers has a definite dry, wry wit that forces grins and chuckles. His characters have the typical jaded 20-something’s outlook and behavioral patterns. They are insufferable, determined, fragile, adaptable, unpredictable, irresponsible, and wholly likeable. The reader roots for them even when they’ve insulted a local by violating a basic custom, like not spilling water on someone’s clothes in the middle of a conversation.

The writing itself is straightforward and descriptive. Eggers takes liberties with creating fake words that give his characters a unique voice, “The man raised a finger to us…conferred with the three men…all heavy-set and mustachioed.” ‘Mustachioed’? It sounds like something I might think but never say.

The characters’ conversations tend towards the profane and resemble animal exchanges, full of grunts and one-syllable sounds. They run into a problem while discussing the logistics of their trip:

There was something wrong with the timetable. He’d entered in the destinations, but every time we left San Francisco…we’d end up in Mongolia not a few hours later, but two damned days later.
“How can that be?”
“I figured it out,” Hand said.
“What?”
“You want to know what it is?”
“What?”
“I’m going to lay it on you.”
“Tell me.”
“Ready?”
“Fuck yourself.”
“The international date line,” he said.
“No.”
“Yes.”
“The international date line!”
“Yes.”
“Fuck the international date line!”
“Can we do that?” he asked.

It is this kind of humor that permeates every interaction, every situation the characters get themselves into. They can be likened to malformed pinballs in a pinball machine.

Perhaps one of my favorite things about the novel is Eggers’ creative use of the standard novel structure. The story is not entirely linear. I don’t want to spoil anything, but suffice to say the middle of the novel holds a surprise that changes the reader’s perception for the final quarter of the story. The reader could even skip the middle section and save it for the end, providing for an altogether different result. At one point, Eggers illustrates the sound of silence – a pause – by inserting two blank pages in the middle of a sentence. This kind of creativity makes for a refreshing read.

If you don’t mind some random profanity and get a kick out of watching 20-something buffoons embarrass themselves around the world, give this book a try. It’s not very long and every page is a riot.

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