If I was Dave Eggers the artist, I would hate the reviews that my new novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, has been receiving. Almost invariably, they begin with extended discussions about Dave Eggers: his life, his exploits and, especially, his money. I'm guessing he would really hate a review that began by pointing out that his reviews tend to begin by discussing Dave Eggers.
Briefly, Eggers is the former editor of Might, a hip satirical magazine from the '90s which never quite made it financially (but which reliable sources tell me was brilliant), as well as a former editor at Esquire. He's also the founder and editor of McSweeney's, a "zine" which publishes experimental writing, oddball humor and interviews. In addition, he is a terror in the publishing world.
Eggers' autobiography, modestly titled A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, sold about 800,000 copies in the U.S., between the hardcover and paperback versions. It made Eggers wealthy, but it also made him infamous. He fired his agent. He twisted the paperback publisher's arm almost to the breaking point by demanding a small fortune and creative control (as opposed to simply editorial control) of the whole product. He got into quarrels with members of the press, including The New York Times.
Charges that Eggers had "sold out" appear to have stung the most. In his famous temper tantrum to The Harvard Advocate, Eggers complained that his fans thought him a sellout "because my book has sold many copies. And because I have done many interviews. And because I have let people take my picture." Writing last May in Seattle's alternative hipper-than-thou weekly The Stranger, reviewer Christine Wenc complimented Amy Fusselman's The Pharmicist's Mate (brought out by the publishing arm of McSweeney's magazine) for rising above the "McSweeny's shtick."
As catch phrases go, this was absolutely toxic to the long arc of Eggers' career. A long-time taxonomist of what is cool, as well as an astute businessman, he had to do something—anything—to keep words like "McSweeney's schtick" from gaining a toe hold in the vocabulary of Blue state twenty- and thirtysomethings, his target audience (and, therefore, his bread and butter).
Thus, we have the curious release of You Shall Know Our Velocity. Limited in the U.S. to independent bookstores and a first print run of 10,000 copies (though widely available in Canada and the UK) and self-published, the book looks like a thoroughly uncommercial affair. The cover is cardboard, with no book jacket. The story begins there and continues on the inside cover. The edges of the pages are not shaved straight, giving the whole package a rough indy sort of look. The form of the book, at least, is an attempt to reestablish elusive street cred.
The story itelf—and this may be the reason for the reviewers' obsession with Eggers the man—isn't much to write home about. The premise is promising: A twentysomething slacker named Will suffers through emotional and physical trauma. His best friend (or "one of my two best friends") dies, and he is jumped in a storage unit by vicious thugs, leaving him hideous-looking and, perhaps, brain damaged. However, he has also come into quite the pile of money, which he wants to get rid of, in one week, by circling the globe and giving the money to unsuspecting people in poor countries.
However, the execution of the story is unbelievably bad. Will and substitute best friend Hand touch down in such places as Senegal ("It was windy in Greenland") and London. They meet plenty of odd but uninteresting people, fight like cats and dogs, and obsess endlessly over who should get the money and how much. Dozens of pages are filled with Will's meandering, odd internal dialogue (monologue simply won't do). Even one of the book's champions, Salon's Peter Kurth, has to admit that if an excerpt "sounds a bit sophomoric, it is." As a book, You Shall Know Our Velocity would have benefited from an editor who was willing to tell Eggers to cut out the dumb parts and rewrite the rest.
But as a cultural product and an object of self-promotion, it's hard to know how he could have done better. Though, as Jeet Heer noted in the National Post, "Commerce and Eggers' art are especially hard to keep apart," the whole package positions him as a champion of self-publishers and independent booksellers everywhere.
In fact the vacuity of the story has been filled by reviewers with psychoanalysis of Eggers himself. (Well, you see, he was beaten up in the press, and had trouble with charges of selling out and gave scads of money away to charity and small publishing projects . …" Eggers the artist must be weeping, but I bet the canny businessman is laughing all the way to the bank.
Jeremy Lott is the production director for The Report, a Canadian magazine of news and opinion.
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Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Epicurus'—and Darwin's—Dangerous Idea | How we became hedonists. (Nov. 18, 2002)
Weird Science? | A Darwinian debate continues. (Nov. 11, 2002)
Of Moths and Men Revisited | A Darwinian debate. (Nov. 4, 2002)
Angels in Heaven | A game that's more than a game. (Oct. 28, 2002)
Number One with a Bullet | America's foist family as a tool for evangelism. (Oct. 21, 2002)
Train Up a Child | Helping children to become intimately familiar with Scripture. (Oct. 14, 2002)
Acting Like Those 'Evangelicals' | Guilty as charged? (Sept. 30, 2002)
Ugly Evangelicals | Is this us? (Sept. 23, 2002)
Herbie Goes Bananas | The rise and fall and rise and fall and rise of the VW Beetle. (Sept. 16, 2002)
So Far, So Near | A graduate of Murree Christian School in Pakistan, the site of a deadly assault by Islamic terrorists in August, reflects on his growing-up years, on what has changed in the interim, and on the beleaguered Christian community in Pakistan (Sept. 9, 2002)
The New York Times Discovers Religion (Again) | Shouldn't the paper of record be able to move beyond Square One? (August 26, 2002)
After the Quake | Bedside reading for the anniversary of 9/11. (August 19, 2002)
How to Avoid the Coming Disaster | "Imitate Japan." "No, don't imitate Japan." Time out. (August 12, 2002)
"Mind Control" and the Christian Citizen | Historian Sean Wilentz's misguided attack on Justice Antonin Scalia. (August 5, 2002)