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January 17, 2008

What is the What by Dave Eggers

There is so much to say about Dave Eggers’s novel What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. First: read it, it’s good for you. Good by the fact of being extraordinarily well-written, well-plotted, challenging, long long but you won’t bemoan that, tragic but not so much that you’re put off the story. For the very point is the story, the story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the fabled “Lost Boys of Sudan.” Good for the reason that you’ve probably heard of the “Lost Boys” and Sudan, and it’s all mixed up with Darfur, and when you think of Africa anyway, you think of Africa. You think “over there.”

Or at least I thought for a long time, until I started seeking books and stories that would make the stories clearer, make the places and people of this vast and varied continent distinct. What is the What was good for me because I came away with an education. An incredible story too that perhaps allowed the lessons to “take” so well, but the very best thing for me about the book was not its point, its story, but its didacticism. I’ve come away with the facts, and I know a little bit more about the world.

But then the story is by no means incidental. And how well it is spun, beginning in the present and going back to the past, setting up a circular pattern, and then moving back and forth in and out of time. It’s a giant story, nearly twenty years in Deng’s life, and I respected its length. Perhaps one could have cut a few hundred pages to no great narrative loss, except to undermine the fact of this life. Talk about length, try spending ten years in a refugee camp. The shape of the narrative suits its content incredibly well, and makes for a gripping read.

Beginning with Deng in his apartment in Atlanta and a knock on the door just before his home is invaded by thieves and he is assaulted. Certainly not the standard set-up for such a story, “refugee boy makes good etc. happily ever after”. What is the What shows how hard it is to make good, how elusive is “ever after”. Ever after what?

Deng’s early life is established beautifully with an idea given to him as a young boy marching across Sudan with an army of boys. A march upon which armies, rebels and lions are a threat, as well as hunger, sickness, and exhaustion. Imagine your favourite day, he is told by their guide. A collection of all the perfect memories he’s ever known, and Achak remembers his loving family, his village, his friends, a brand new bicycle. Certainly, there is a “before”. Until Civil War breaks out in Southern Sudan, young Achak witnesses unimaginable horror, and, unsure what has happened to his family, joins the other boys on their walk toward some sort of safety in first Ethiopia, then Kenya, and then later to America.

Certainly when we talk about What is the What, we must mention Dave Eggers, but then it’s hard to even find him here. Eggers has stated that the reason he wrote a novel rather than a non-fiction book was that Deng’s voice was the great strength of the story, and the voice Eggers has recreated here certainly underlines that. One could only recreate a voice like this by listening intently, projecting nothing, and clearly this is what Eggers has done. Capturing the rhythms of this particular speaker, the trajectory of his stories, the kinds of lessons he cares to impart.

What I find so incredible about Dave Eggers, and what I respect about him, is that he’s never done the same thing twice. (He’s also an admirable philanthropist, but we shall stick to literary matters.) With all his early success, he wasn’t required to do what he’s done. But he has challenged himself, taken risks, proved his literary chops. The proof is here– the once-ironic indulgently-self-aware memoirist has written an epic tale, and all that remains of him here is the warmth, the humour, the generosity of spirit and insight.

Of course I do wonder about the political implications. What does it mean that this African man has had his story told by someone else? Why couldn’t Deng have told it himself? What is lost as we smudge the bounds of a literary life, and I am curious to see what history makes of all this. For this is a hugely significant work, and I am sure what it means will change with time, but in the meantime I would hope that the power of the novel addresses some of these concerns. That Deng’s voice wasn’t “stolen”, rather he sought out Eggers to tell the story, acknowledging that he wasn’t a writer. That Eggers tells the story masterfully, in a way a simple memoir by a lesser writer mightn’t have done. That Eggers’ name catches attention, directs it towards a worthy cause, and Deng receives the proceeds from the novel, which he is using towards his foundation.

Checking out the previous link today, looking at pictures of Deng’s visits back to Sudan and the work he is doing in his village of Marial Bai, I was moved by the beauty of the place. The greenness, the vastness, the vibrancy were not what came to mind before when I thought of Sudan, of a country that had been wracked by war for years and years. My perspective has been coloured, indelibly I would hope. And this is what reading can do, fiction in particular with all universality it implies. It’s quite simple (though not much else is)– I read this book, and it was good for me.

2 thoughts on “What is the What by Dave Eggers”

  1. tim says:

    FANTASTIC review. Just “wow.”

  2. Kerry says:

    Thank you. And thank you also for the championship of you and yours which made me realize how much I absolutely had to read this one.

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