Before I even start writing this, I can tell this is going to be a long post. I may go off on a tangent more than once, so just a warning…
To start off, I REALLY enjoyed this book, but I can’t quite put my finger on why. Second warning: unlike my typical posts I have some spoilers here so continue at your own risk. Before I started this book, I saw some Amazon reviews that were not great (in my eyes). One likened it to On the Road, and we know how much I loved that book. Another complained about the writing style which made me nervous since I was already a couple of days behind on my reading and I wanted this to be a breeze. But in the end it felt nothing like On the Road, and I thoroughly enjoyed Eggers’ writing style. Just goes to show that we can all have very different tastes.
The premise of this novel is that two boys, Will (the narrator) and Hand, have decided to travel around the world to give away over $30,000 to random people who they meet along the way. They don’t have strict guidelines for who they will give the money to, but they are consistent in that they only give it to people that seem as though they need it and are unlikely to give it to people that straight up ask for money. Also spoiler, we never know why they have all this money, it is just inferred that Will does not believe he is deserving of the money and he feels he should give it away. The novel also has a lot of flashbacks because recently their friend, Jack, was killed in a car accident. Will has a very hard time dealing with this loss and frequently has conversations in his head about/with Jack. (Side note: these internal conversations that Will had were what the Amazon reviewer really found annoying about Eggers’ writing style, but I loved them.)
So straight forward story line, right? But then comes the shocker about two-thirds of the way through. Hand narrates the story for one chapter, 50 pages. First 250 pages: Will, second 50: Hand, last 100: Will. Hand completely changes the way we view the story. He tells the reader that Will has lied about a lot of things in his version of the story. It is true that they traveled and gave money away, but one of the major themes of Will’s story is about Jack and Hand says that Jack never existed. Will made up Jack and the car accident. Will also calls his mother multiple times during their travels, but Hand says Will’s mom had died before they took their trip. The other major lie was that Will says that before they took their trip he got beat up to a very serious degree, a beating that he believes was intended for Hand since he did not know the men. According to Hand, this never happened. A few other little details were off too, but those were the major ones. Hand is angry that Will fluffed up the story with these details because he believes their adventures were interesting enough without needing a sad back story.
So I loved this middle part, I loved that it made me question everything I had read and made me distrust the central narrator, something you rarely do when you read a novel. This made the last 100 pages confusing for me; why was Will lying? what did these lies tell us about Will as a person? Hand didn’t think Will was mentally unstable, he seemed to infer that Will made this up on purpose, not that we really believed any of this. But who knows?
Now what really complicated things in my mind, and maybe it shouldn’t, was the research I did after about the novel. At first I loved this whole idea of having different narrators, very different writing styles between the two with one calling out the truthfulness of the other. But then I found out that Eggers’ actually wrote two versions of the novel. In Hand’s narration he says he read Will’s novel and chose to insert his own narration in the middle, but I just assumed this was done all at once by Eggers since it was all a fictional world to begin with. But no, Eggers really did publish one version in 2002 and then in 2003 published a new version (same name at first but with an ! at the end – later to be called Sacrament) with Hand’s narration inserted in the middle. I didn’t even realize there were two versions until I did this research. Amazon only had the latter version available on Kindle so that just happened to be what I read, otherwise I never would have known about the second version. Anyways, I’m still conflicted about this whole idea and the novel in general, but I still really really enjoyed it, definitely at the top of my list thus far. Highly recommend.
No quotes from this one. The parts that I found most intriguing were long paragraphs, so I won’t include them here, but go read for yourself and let me know how you like it!
Next up, Animal Farm by George Orwell…