In honor of Banned Books Week, there will be a post everyday here on Something Worth Reading. Details about the giveaway can be found here. Any comment on this post or any post this week will count as an entry. Today I’m writing a little about Velocity! not because it’s banned or contested or controversial (is it?), but because it’s long overdue. So here’s another entry from Whitney’s Shelf.
Whitney has a ton of Dave Eggers on her shelf (a ton = 4 books), so I figured we might as well address at least one of those right off the bat. I tried reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius when it first came out and was a little bit stymied. I gave up. It was probably a bad time for me to be reading it anyway, as I had a lot of personal life drama at the time plus a college career which was also giving me grief, and I couldn’t be bothered to decode Eggers’ style, which at the time struck me as a little too self-consciously quirky. I hoped things would go better for me this time. They did. At least, I think they did. I’m left a little bewildered and sad by this book, but I think that’s ok.
Velocity! is the story of two guys who have a bunch of money trying to travel around the world in week in order to give it away. There’s all kinds of stuff going on with unreliable narration– it’s difficult to be sure what is really happening at all, or who is saying what, or who even really exists. Eggers creates this “play” between perception and “reality” (it’s a work of fiction, after all) at both macro- and micro-levels of the narrative. For example, there’s very little “I said” “she said” types of markers (micro-confusion), but then there’s the question of whether a character even exists (macro-level confusion). In some writers, this irritates me, but I was willing to along for the ride this time. It would be worth your while to google this book to find out its publication history and so forth, because that’s also interesting and might impact your understanding of the work. Whitney and I apparently ended up with different editions. Overall, it was an athletic read, requiring my brain to move about in ways it didn’t normally have to. I think it was worth reading, but I am also tempted to think 50 pages less of it wouldn’t have hurt anything either. For what it’s worth, Whitney loves this book. She’s read it before, but it didn’t stop her from crying on the reread.
Here’s a rough reconstruction of our phone conversation about this book. I’m putting a few words in Whitney’s mouth, but none she didn’t intend, I don’t think. There are spoilers, but I bet you’ll forget them before you read the book. We refer to someone named “S.” who is a guy Whitney has gone on a few dates with, whose name I am protecting for the present. David is my husband, formerly in the Air Force. Whitney, just to remind you, is a neurology nurse. Whitney’s comments are in bold because what she says is important. My comments are italicized because what I say is emphatic. Or something. At least this way you’ll know it’s dialogue.
-So about this book… I don’t even… Like…. I don’t even know…
-I don’t even know how to start this conversation. There’s so much to this book. It’s so sad. Even though I’ve read it before, it didn’t stop me from crying. It’s just so sad.
-Can we just establish what actually happened in this book? Because I’m a little confused.
–Well, Jack is made up.
–In the chapter by Hand, right in the middle, he says that.
–I don’t have that chapter. Are you kidding me? I was thinking that maybe Hand was made up.
-Ooo, that’s interesting. But no, I think he’s real. But Will’s mother is dead. She died a long time ago. So all those conversations that Will has with her are actually in his head.
-Oh my goodness. But if Jack isn’t real, and Will’s mom isn’t really there, how do we know that Hand is there? What kind of name is “Hand” anyway? I was thinking this was some sort of Fight Club thing, where it was just himself.
–No, I think Hand is real and Will is real, but Jack is not and Will’s mom is dead.
–I can’t believe I’m missing an entire chapter. (Flips through book.) No, I really don’t have it.
-I really like the style of this book. I like how the pace of writing really matches the speed at which they are travelling.
–Or not travelling. It seemed like they were stuck in one place a lot. Or they felt that way, anyhow. I wonder if there’s a message in that.
–Hm, yeah. I was just drawn to the style. It was hard to keep track of who said what, but I kind of liked going back and figuring it out. I don’t know. It was just fun. Though the book overall is just so sad.
–Poor Will. He’s just this broken guy, like we’re all broken.
–He is broken you’re exactly right.
–But this book was still really funny. So it’s like, I’m laughing, but am I allowed to laugh at this? Is that ok?
–It definitely made me laugh.
–What do think the message of this book is?
–Oh, I have no idea. You know, I spent the first half of the book, before the Hand chapter, believing whatever Will said, and then the second half not. So I don’t really know what to take away from this book that way. And you know, I’m not much for analyzing what I read.
–You just have very good instincts.
–You know, with all his weirdness, Will really is so likeable. I really liked his “pre”conversations. I totally do that. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that. I do that all the time. That and the totally imaginary conversations. I do that too. Occupational hazard?
–Oh, I do that, too. You know I was talking with S. recently and he told me that he has conversations in his head all time. Like when he has to reprimand an employee or something. He plays it out in his head ahead of time. And whenever I go to a party or I’m going to go out with a friend who is someone I’m not best friends with, you know what I mean, someone with whom conversation will not naturally flow, I prepare a little mental list of things to talk about to keep things from getting awkward, to fill the empty spaces.
–I do that all the time. It’s my social anxiety management strategy. That and delusional optimism: “This time I will not make a fool of myself.”
–You know that’s part of our training as nurses, how to talk to doctors. We have to give them the information in the right way or they won’t hear us, or they’ll get frustrated, or it will take more time than it needs to. That S-Bar thing.
–What is that?
–Oh, it’s Situation Background Assessment Recommendation. So what is the problem, how did it happen, what needs to happen next. That thing. The military uses it a lot.
–ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Whitney, David does this ALL THE TIME and I am just now realizing it. I thought he was just exceptionally well prepared whenever we talked about a problem, but it’s just what he’s been trained to do. It drives him nuts when I just say, “Hey, here’s this problem, what do you think?” No wonder. NO WONDER! (head smack)
–This book has been all kinds of good for you then.
-So if you had $80,000 to give away, how would you do it? Whirlwind trip to the other side of the globe writing enigmatic notes and giving away enormous and unnecessary tips?
–Part of me would like to say that. I mean, it’s very Romantic, isn’t it? But just seems, so… I don’t know…
–Wasteful. Will’s way wouldn’t occur to me. That’s more like it’s spent than given away.
-Yeah, that comes up in conversations– er, “conversations” between Will and his mom. What about Making A Difference, though?
-I guess writing a check isn’t as emotionally fulfilling, but it is maybe what people need more. If you can’t be a doctor yourself and go stitch up cleft palates and distribute vaccines, then you can at least give money to pay the expenses for people who can.
–The whole trip really is about filling some emotional void in Will’s life. He’s not really interested in charity so much as he is interested in not being alone in the world.
–Yeah, I’m just thinking if I do anything like that.
–You don’t have enough money to do anything like that.
––No, but I do eat a lot of candy.
–If I had a lot of money, after getting out of debt and everything, I think I would just shop more.
–Oh, I would, too.
–But not, like, thousands of dollars at Target kind of shopping more. I would just spend more money buying clothes that actually fit–
–Rather than just what’s there. Oh, me too. I’m so glad that I don’t have giant emotional hole that I need to fill.
-Me too. I mean, about you. You know what I mean.
-That must be the worst. There was a lady at work who felt like she couldn’t breathe. I mean, she was fine, her oxygen levels were fine, but she was just so sure she couldn’t breathe. “I can’t breathe,” she said. “I just want to die.” She just kept repeating that. And there wasn’t anything I could do for her. That’s just the worst.
-Yeah, like Will. So sad. It’s just a month of sad books for us, with this one, and The Fault in Our Stars– I was crying so much at the end, I’m going to have to reread it I think—
–You should reread it.
–And then next is The Book Thief.
–Break out the Kleenex!