A Review of Dave Eggers’ What is the What
On paper, Edward P. Jones and Dave Eggers seem to have little in common. The former grew up poor in predominantly African-American Northeast D.C., made his critical reputation with a collection of deceptively understated short stories, and even after a National Book Award nomination, continued to labor in relative penury and obscurity. The latter grew up in an affluent Chicago suburb and found commercial success early, with a memoir that placed the Dave Eggers voice – inventive, flashy, ironic – front and center. And yet this literary season has found the two stars aligning in the literary firmament. First, in August, Eggers penned an appreciative and thoughtful Sunday Times review of Jones’ new collection All Aunt Hagar’s Children – a book which, at least superficially, could not be more different than Eggers’ recent collection How We Are Hungry. Then, two weeks ago, Eggers published a novel embodying the very qualities he praised to in Jones’ work: “its sweep, its humanity, the unvarnished perfection of its prose and [a] steady and unerring” narrative force. And though it may surprise critics of McSweeney’s to hear it, What is the What is the finest American novel I have read since The Known World.
The novel is a gently fictionalized autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a living casualty of the ongoing Sudanese civil war. Having fled from his ruined boyhood village on foot, Deng grew up in U.N.-run camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. He settled in Atlanta in 2001, and after a series of setbacks began looking for a writer who might help him tell his story. As stories go, this one is dramatic and wrenching prima facie, and in a two-part article for The Believer, Eggers gave it respectful, even tentative journalistic treatment. But, sensing that this approach placed barriers of “objectivity” between the audience from the material, he decided, boldly and correctly (with apologies to La Kakutani) to recast Deng’s story as first-person fiction.
The urgency and earnestness of Deng’s voice seem to have provided the necessary pressure to render Eggers’ prose crystalline:
The moon was high when the movement in the grass began and the moon had begun to fall and dim when the shuffling finally stopped. The lion was a simple black silhouette, broad shoulders, its thick legs outstretched, its mouth open. It jumped from the grass, knocked a boy from his feet. I could not see this part, my vision obscured by the line of boys in front of me. I heard a brief wail. Then I saw the lion clearly again as it trotted to the other side of the path, the boy neatly in its jaws. The animal and its prey disappeared into the high grass and the wailing stopped in a moment. The first boy’s name was Ariath.
This paragraph alone would be an extraordinary act of self-effacement for a writer given to flourishes, and an extraordinary act of trust on the part of Deng. That they sustain this voice for 475 pages is something like a miracle. The writer speaks from inside his narrator – from his heart, from his gut, from his intellect. And the distance between audience and subject narrows until we feel that we, too, are Valentino Achak Deng, in all of his complexity and contradiction.
Because imperfect as a human being, he makes a perfect protagonist. He is whip-smart yet perpetually naive, generous and selfish, strong and weak, courageous and timid, full of both faith and doubt. In other words, he is a lot like the Dave Eggers of that other fictionalized autobiography, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius… not because Eggers has played ventriloquist, but because he has tapped into something universal. In the course of the novel, Achak becomes as real to us as we are to ourselves, and we feel his every loss and triumph as though they were our own.
The first half of the book concerns the destruction of the tranquil Dinka homeland in Southern Sudan by agents of the Islamic government in Khartoum and his harrowing walk across the country in the company of thousands of other “Lost Boys.” The novel grounds every historical exigency in the dramatic interactions of rounded characters. If the expectation of a simple story of good vs. evil (and some of the political nuances) gets confounded in the process, we can appreciate more fully the quiet heroism of children who talk each other out of suicide, of young teachers who lead groups of boys through minefields and crocodile-infested rivers, of villagers who risk the disapproval of their elders by sharing their food with these unwanted boys. And though it feels inappropriate to render an aesthetic judgment on Deng’s experience, his quest for safety generates a narrative force to rival anything in Lord of the Rings. The difference is that there are no invisibility cloaks or magic breads here.
Things get quieter in the second half, as Deng finds some measure of safety in the refugee camps. But his earlier struggles resonate poignantly in his attempts to contact the father he hasn’t heard from in a decade, and especially in a visit to the relatively prosperous and stable capital city of Kenya. Without ever editorializing, What is the What reminds us of the brutality the world’s millions of impoverished children face daily; how decadent something as simple as a grocery store can look to those who are living on U.N. rice. And calamity continues to bedevil Deng as he waits to be relocated to the U.S. – which will prove to be no promised land.
In a rare instance of overt artistic license, Eggers uses the invasion and robbery of Deng’s apartment in Atlanta as a frame for his novel. We return periodically to scenes of Deng being assaulted in his apartment, or filing a police report, or waiting to be treated for his injuries in the ER. His internal monologues – his memories of Africa – are directed at the various characters he meets along the way. For the most part, this device works just fine. We are deprived of the solace of seeing Deng as exotic, someone “over there”; rather, his struggles are ours… and the injustices he faces in America are the ones we perpetrate every day with our impatience, our pettiness, our indifference. And Deng himself is guilty of these human failings. Occasionally, though, Eggers seems to overreach in his transitions between the fictional present and the fictional past, and to milk the robbery too aggressively for suspense. In almost every other particular, however, What is the What‘s formal features merge perfectly with its moral authority, until it is impossible to speak of artistic “choices.” It is equally difficult to analyze the rich relationship the reader develops with Mr. Deng. Like The Known World, and like Deng’s life, the book just is. And that’s about the highest praise I can think of.
Eggers has been a fixture on the American literary scene for long enough that it’s easy to forget he’s in his mid-thirties. Like his near-contemporaries Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace, he has occasionally suffered in his writing from a kind of IQ overload, an analysis-paralysis. His second book (and first novel), You Shall Know Our Velocity was not an unqualified success, and some readers have been rubbed the wrong way by the antic quality of his fiction. They may be tempted to write off What is the What, rather than read it. But its large-heartedness is an antidote to such small-mindedness. It takes us deep inside a person we will never forget and heralds the arrival of a writer who has found himself by looking beyond himself, and who has learned the difference between intelligence and wisdom.
(All proceeds from What is the What go to aiding the Sudanese in Sudan and America.)