You Shall Know Our Velocity
McSweeney’s Books, 2002
Disclaimer: The author of this review claims no expertise in the field of literature. Certain well-read readers will no doubt have encountered some of the devices mentioned below in the work of earlier writers—writers with whom the present author is very likely not all that familiar. The author urges those readers, who are perhaps already gloating about their literary superiority, not to dismiss him just yet. The goal here is not historical; the petty establishment of dibs on these devices isn’t going to do anyone any good, in the long run. Instead, I simply wish to make a few observations on literary technique that may interest those involved in the making of and discussion about the built environment.
It risks little to assert that people do not read as much as they used to. Visual media is far too efficient. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what writer can keep up with twenty-four frames per second? Do the math. One episode of Friends would make War and Peace look like Green Eggs and Ham. The video age seems to have doomed literature to play second fiddle to the almighty TV. And if things look this bleak for fiction, architecture must really be in trouble.
This brand of hyperbolic ranting should sound familiar. Victor Hugo included similar lamentations in Notre Dame du Paris, nineteenth century painters bemoaned the advent of photography, and apocalyptic pronouncements drip from the pages of The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Daniel Boorstin’s 1962 attack on visual hegemony. But Hugo’s book didn’t kill the building, photography didn’t end painting, and visual media won’t do us in today. In fact, today’s young writers and architects continue to wring impressive vitality from their respective disciplines, often taking direct cues from those threatening images.
Dave Eggers is a case in point. He is editor of McSweeney’s, a renegade literary journal that spotlights experimental, media-savvy writers. In both web (www.mcsweeneys.net) and print formats, a stable of up-and-coming scribes shares the stage with such prodigious talents as Zadie Smith, Rick Moody, David Foster Wallace (a past recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant”), and Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon.
Eggers’s new novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, was released last November to mixed reviews. Though exceptions exist, most of those reviews adhere to the following formula:
Establish high expectations for YSKOV based on the success/quality of Eggers’s debut memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Vintage 2000).
Digress into a discussion of Eggers the media figure. Note his ironic and contradictory nature with regard to literature, money, fame, et cetera. Admit either jealousy of or disdain for Eggers’s success.
Summarize the plot: Following the death of their friend Jack, Will and Hand attempt to travel around the world in a week to give away $32,000.
Proclaim general disappointment with YSKOV, because it did not meet the high expectations established in Step One. Employ the following terms: self-indulgent, gimmicky, rambling, lazy, sophomoric, vague, naïve, condescending.
Temper comments made in Step Four with glowing praise of the writing. Appropriate adjectives include bold, inventive, precise, lucid, important, dazzling, intoxicating, and sincere.
Grapple with the contradictions of just having completed Steps Four and Five.
Close with commentary on Eggers’s position in contemporary literature, and predict the quality of his next offering. Whether praising or panning, use superlatives.
Popular treatments tend to downplay the work itself, focusing instead on the media frenzy surrounding Eggers and his exploits. (E.g.: Coming off the success of AHWOSG, Eggers fired his agent and turned down seven-figure advances only to release YSKOV, in a limited print run of 50,000 from his own imprint, and distributed only to independent booksellers). Most literary analyses favor comparisons to Jack Kerouac and J.D. Salinger, but countless others, larded with references to Milan Kundera, Italo Calvino, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Miguel de Cervantes, et. al., are undoubtedly underway in English departments across the country.
Given the glut of attention the book has already received, I will refrain from rehearsing the above formula. Suffice it to say that YSKOV is a good read, though its many typos provoke mild disappointment. Like bad details on a building, these unfortunate errors clamor for attention, undermining the efficacy of the book’s literary ambitions.
It is these ambitions that interest the present critic. For with his clever writing and brash experimentalism, Eggers pushes the boundaries of his discipline. Page after page, he searches for those effects that books alone can engender. Sure, some of his experiments fizzle, but others broach new territory. And the gains are well worth a few minor misfires.
YSKOV begins on its jacketless cover with no title, no copyright page, no foreplay whatsoever—a technique common in recent action films (XXX, Spider-Man, etc.) that abandons customary tropes. Traditionally, the title sequence sets the mood, easing the psychic transition into the imaginary space of the story. Without it, one does not slip imperceptibly into that space. One falls.
The vacillating scenes of a simple picaresque cushion the landing. This straightforward framework – two guys on the move—structured the adventures of Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn and Dean Moriarty and here provides Eggers a resilient foil for his linguistic experiments.
Shifting imagery even infiltrates moments of stasis, as an early passage attests. The narrator, Will, instructs the reader to imagine him at a desk overlooking a meadow and a stream. The desk lies atop a ten-story building that extends down into the earth. The building is Will’s mind, within which his memories are cataloged by “a staff of humanoid people, oily and pale and without hair – they are moles and look like it, with huge square yellow teeth and mouths of fire.” Will requests his memories from the mole people, and these are swiftly brought up and laid before him on the desk. From page thirty-one:
But lately I’d be sitting at my desk, trying either to work or to just admire the view and wonder about the stream, what makes it go, if there are fish inside, what their names might be, if any of them are secretly talking fish and if so what they might say—when there will suddenly be a library staff member at my side, and she will have one hand on my back, and the other will be pointing to the contents of the file she’s brought me and has opened on my desk, so that I will follow her finger to where she’s pointing, and when I see what she’s pointing to I will gasp.
I never want to see that fucking clipping again. I was outraged at my mom for keeping it. What kind of psycho would do that? She didn’t show it to me but there it was, in the drawer where we keep the scissors and envelopes and clippings.
The passage continues to dance promiscuously between topics, from the memory moles to contented reflections on his former job to painful ones on Jack’s funeral. Canny sentence structure and punctuation erase rifts in subject matter and the passage is rendered as seamless montage—literary technique applied to produce a cinematic effect.
Visual images also fall within the range of Eggers’s experiments. A clever example replaces verbal description with miniature color pictures of three Ford Broncos, as out of place on the printed page as are the fictional trucks in the scene described. Cryptic notes penned by the characters are reproduced photographically and a description of birds in flight hinges about a photograph (though a missing line of text ruins the effect).
Elsewhere, three blank pages denote a long pause. By removing the abstraction of written language, Eggers confronts us with the physicality of the book itself. In the absence of text, we savor the sensuality of reading—the book’s heft and texture, the time that passes with the turn of a page. In that span, meaning is suspended. Pure sensation takes its place.
You can’t do that on television. These devices punctuate YSKOV with potent effects that assert the specific capacity of the literature in the twenty-first century.
Many young practices pursue similar effects in architecture. Trading the dense and arcane for the clear and direct, these architects elicit startling originality from workaday programs, small budgets, and common materials. A few examples:
MVRDV: Bold colors and absurd cantilevers transform WoZoCo, an otherwise anonymous retirement home in suburban Amsterdam, into a magazine favorite. Similar marriages of the everyday and the unthinkable drive recent projects including the Hannover Expo Pavilion, Container City, and Studio Thonik.
Lewis Tsuramaki Lewis: In projects and installations such as Mies-on-a-Beam, New Suburbanism, and Slip Space, LTL, deploys shrewd analyses and exquisite architectural drawings to, as they state, “exploit the potency of the unfamiliar that lurks behind the façade of familiarity.”
Kennedy & Violich Architecture: Capitalizing upon unforeseen material possibilities, KVA peels drywall away into sculptural swirls (Fabrications), conjures fabrics that glow (Give-Back Curtain) and convinces plywood to carry data and electricity (Art Institute of Chicago and El Desk).
PXS: The Los Angeles firm of Robert Somol and Linda Pollari eschews what they refer to as the recent “fetish of difficulty” and instead pursue an architecture of “the easy.” In their own house as well as in recent competition entries, straightforward forms, off-the-shelf materials, and expedient planning come together to get the job done without breaking a sweat.
As Eggers opines on his own unconventional tendencies (on the copyright page of AHWOSG, no less), the use of such techniques “does not mean that someone is being pomo or meta or cute.” Rather, it suggests a refreshing pragmatism. He continues:
the fact that this paperback version [of AHWOSG] starts from both sides, and that the reader must turn it over, lengthwise, to read from one side or the other, does not mean that it is frivolous or, in parlance, too clever for its own good. It simply means that this was the best way to approach the problem of this appendix, which does not start from where the book leaves off, but starts from another point, an opposite point. In general, not everything that is new is trendy; not everything that is different is gimmicky; not everything that is truthful must fall within well-known formal parameters. The goal is to have fun and push forward, no?
Good advice. So let’s hang up our critical pretensions, quit worrying about obsolescence, have fun, and push forward. We can start by focusing on what buildings alone can do, and stop trying so hard to read them.