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Defining Genius

Dave Eggers continues his heartbreaking work with a paperback version of You Shall Know Our Velocity!, the much-anticipated follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-nominated memoir.

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For most authors, once a book is published, it's out of their hands. Words aren't set in stone, but they might as well be, for once in print there's no time for revision.

Unless you're Dave Eggers.

Recently released in paperback, Eggers' newest work, the novel You Shall Know Our Velocity!, has undergone a physical transformation as well as a change in marketing. Initially, Eggers self-published the hardcover and only made it available at independent bookstores. The cover art was just the first paragraph starting in capital letters. Contrast this with the newest version, published by Vintage Books -- a division of Random House. It features slick cover art and can be purchased anywhere. Did Eggers sell out? Was the initial offering a snub to publishers and chain bookstores? There are no simple answers. For in the Eggers' world, contradiction happens to be a hallmark.

In 2000 at the age of 29, Eggers became the rock star of the literary world with A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a memoir that details how he lost both his parents to cancer and then raised his 7-year-old brother. In it, Eggers came close to realizing the claims of the title, revealing a fantastic ability to present a story that is both irreverent and honest enough to suggest that Eggers might have been exploiting his family's tragedy. Critics and publishers quickly embraced the next James Joyce; Staggering Genius was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and Eggers sold the paperback rights for $1.4 million.

But just as suddenly, the honeymoon ended.

First, his literary agent sued him for non-payment for selling the film rights to Staggering Genius. (They settled out of court.) Interestingly, Eggers commented on the lawsuit in the Staggering Genius paperback edition: "I was being sued by a former agent for money generated from my family's story." Later, in February 2001, The New York Times published an interview suggesting that Eggers could be "thin-skinned" and difficult as well as extremely talented. Eggers felt the tone of the article was mean-spirited and that many of the quotes used were supposed to be off the record. He responded with an online diatribe damning the writer, David Kirkpatrick, and making available their entire email correspondence. Since then, he has refused most interview requests, but the Times episode and his overreaction continues to generate publicity as noted in an article in this month's Playboy, "War of the Words" -- which discusses Eggers' touchiness and his media detractors.

In You Shall Know Our Velocity!, art imitates life, or at least its ironies. Will, the novel's narrator, is a 27-year-old college drop-out with $80,000, which he feels is undeserved. He decides to go around the world in a week and give away $32,000 to the impoverished. Accompanying Will is Hand, one of his two best friends. (The other friend is Jack, who died six months earlier and was always the sensible one of the trio -- he was killed in a car accident partially due to obeying the speed limit.) Will's head is described as a "condemned church with a ceiling of bats," and his journey around the world is an attempt to leave his head behind.

The work invites comparisons to Jack Kerouac's epochal On the Road. But in Kerouac's book, Sal and Dean are hard-traveling observers communing with like-minded spirits on the highways and byways of post-war America. Eggers' characters, particularly Will, are consumed with guilt and alienation. Even when giving money to the poor, Will can't help but think, "When you give them the bills, Hand, you feel so filthy."

Like he did with Staggering Genius, Eggers reinvigorates his new book by including additional material in the paperback edition. He allows Hand "An Interruption," in which Hand refutes some of Will's story from the hardcover edition. Hand explains his refutation by arguing "that nonfiction when written well, is unequivocally more powerful than fiction ... ." Hand adds, "But this is the opinion of a man who knows nothing, and it's an opinion that I throw at you to make you angry." It's this kind of developing thought that makes this latest version worthwhile even for those who've read the hardcover.

Part of Eggers' allure, in both his public life and his work, is that he is always revealing more of himself to the world. For some critics, this hints at a master manipulator and a self-promoting genius. For others, his is a maturing intellect, which admits countering thoughts. He is a wealthy young man, whose apparent contradictions are just part of the game, which he will play in order to make a difference. Through Will, Eggers provides what may be the closest thing to a final answer to his critics: "For every secretary giving her uneaten half-sandwich to a haggard unwashed homeless vet, there is someone to claim that the act is only, somehow, making things worse."

After publishing a hardback version of You Shall - Know Our Velocity! on his own, celebrated - author Dave Eggers worked out a paperback- - release (and expanded) version of the book with - Random House.
  • After publishing a hardback version of You Shall Know Our Velocity! on his own, celebrated author Dave Eggers worked out a paperback- release (and expanded) version of the book with Random House.

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