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January 23, 2007

Filed under: fiction»reviews»eggers

What is the What, by Dave Eggers

This review is split into two parts. The first part, labeled appropriately, is for people who simply wish to read the book. They don't want to pick nits with its postmodernity, and they don't want to get meta. It is, in that section, a pretty short review. The second part is concerned with an argument that could be called difficult, perhaps because it is challenging but more likely because it is me being a giant pain about the structure and framework of the book, not its dramatic content or technical execution. In other words, the first review is for readers, and the second is for critics.

Part the First

What is the What is the best thing Dave Eggers has written yet. Depending on your opinion of Eggers, best known for the high-technique but shallow debut novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, that may not be a terribly impressive statement. But What is the What is a genuinely moving and skillfully-written book, centering on one of the Sudanese Lost Boys, Valentino. The protagonist is sent out of his village one day after soldiers attack, and begins a long march with other boys to Ethiopia, where he lives in a refugee camp. Around this story is wrapped a present-day narrative of Valentino, now living in America, as he recovers from a mugging. These excerpts serve as anchors for his story of the past, addressing each chapter set in Sudan to a different character from the America story arc.

Although this flashback structure sounds cumbersome, it actually serves to break up the long, depressing death march through Sudan, and it simultaneously reminds us that a refugee's life in American remains a struggle to survive. It is a story of atrocities in Africa, but Eggers gives us a critique of our own actions and support for the victims of atrocities, and the result is more moving than you might expect.

Part the Second

What is the What ends with Valentino addressing the reader directly for the first time. In previous chapters, he speaks silently to people around him, telling them his story, but on the last few pages he drops this device without ceremony and begins using the second-person pronoun instead. It's a strong rhetorical statement, and Eggers uses it to deliver the surprisingly brutal final lines: "How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist." For a book about a largely-ignored civil war and genocide, the words are a striking reminder of the apathy of most Americans toward its subject.

And yet, what a curious ending for a book shelved in the fiction section, and bearing the confusing frontispiece "What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng: A Novel, by Dave Eggers." Taken literally, we might actually doubt the sincerity of Valentino's existence. Eggers based the character on an actual person, including his real name, but the experience within the pages has been extensively shuffled and combined with other refugee stories to create a more compelling narrative. While I find Eggers' other work to be tiresome, I can't avoid that he is extremely skilled with words, and uses the urgency of an "autobiography" to draw the reader in and elicit sympathy. I hope that his book, all proceeds from which will go towards the Sudanese, is a success.

But it is also impossible for me to believe that Eggers, a self-conscious postmodernist known for his use of irony, is not aware of the implications when a partially-fictionalized character uses his "existence" as a goad for audience action. Given a survey of similar works, the decision to frame this account as both a fictional novel and a factual autobiography surely comes across as truly bizarre, and unnecessary. And as I will point out, while I think that What is the What is a good book, the questions that it refuses to answer about authorship and veracity prevent it from being a great one. Why do we care whether this is a novel or an autobiography? Does this matter, in the face of the subject? I would argue that it does, for five reasons.

First, the device undercuts the narrator's reliability. This is nothing new to fiction, and if this were The Sound and the Fury or Lolita it would probably be considered admirable. Those were works of literature. What is the What, on the other hand, obviously wants readers to do something about the Sudan. Characters remark on a regular basis that the United States could take care of the civil war if it felt like it, comparing it to interventions in Iraq. Valentino prods us gently through most of the book, explaining that we can't know what his life was like, before adding that final jab. But do we believe him? Can he be considered an authority? Because of hallucinations and misunderstandings, as well as his relatively uneducated state, Valentino is an impassioned victim, but he's not a historian or an authority.

Indeed, because he has tied himself so strongly to the first-person literary device, Eggers is forced to introduce other characters--soldiers, teachers, and aid workers--who hold forth across a page or two about Sudan's history in order to inform the reader. A valiant attempt has been made to bring these excerpts into the text, but it still often comes across as Chris Farley in Wayne's World--"My, the security guard certainly had a lot of information. I sure hope it comes in handy sometime in the future." And whereas other accounts of nonfiction events (I'm thinking specifically of Under the Banner of Heaven, but there are numerous others) momentarily step with the reader into a few paragraphs of historical explanation before moving back into the narrative, the insistence here on subjectivity--particularly from the memories of a starving, exhausted, confused boy--leaves readers with a relatively weak feeling of veracity.

This raises the second weakness of the non-non-fiction approach: it implies that the real story of Valentino Achak Deng is not good enough to be novelized without embellishment. Determined to tell all kinds of horrifying stories through a single narrator, Eggers compounds the misery of many Lost Boys onto Valentino's thin shoulders, and he struggles to keep up. In the Washington Post review, Gary Krist claims of What is the What that "[t]he result, however, is a document that -- unlike so many 'real' autobiographies -- exudes authenticity." Unlike real autobiographies, this fake seems real? What does this even mean? It is disturbing, not only that we need "better" nonfiction to be driven to action, but that we have to turn a real person into a fictional character before we can really empathize. Poor Valentino: apparently he's not good enough to be "authentic" without Egger's help.

In fact, another reason to be bothered by What is the What is that there are shadows of colonialism--the White man improving and editing the Other--hovering around this narrative device. Again, I find it hard to believe that Dave Eggers, who is by all accounts a generous and conscientious liberal in addition to his literary ambitions, hasn't questioned that fact. The pedagogical side-characters explain to us, through Valentino, that Sudan's conflict is often rooted in the actions of the racist colonial powers. Yet it didn't seem to occur to him that there is a difference between "The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, by Dave Eggers" and "My autobiography, by Valentino Achak Deng with Dave Eggers." I hesitate to assign racist motives to the author (although The Stranger was not so kind), but for me the question of why this material was not approached as a traditional--and more equitable--ghostwriting project hangs over it, and colors my view.

Which brings us to the fourth weakness of such a complicated frame: it weakens the book's rhetorical strategy. At a basic level, readers must be aware of the book's history and strategy, or it could easily be confused with fiction. The back cover--which, by the way, consists of a leaflet looped over the hardcopy binding and not something integral to the book--makes no mention that Valentino Achak Deng was a real person. A brief preface by Valentino introduces the book, but a preface by a fictional character is not unknown, and certainly isn't out of place for readers who are familiar with the jokey style of Eggers' other works. Attempting to lend weight to the book by relying on its own preface reminds me of a fundamentalist who answers criticism of the Bible's trustworthiness by pointing to Biblical verses about "God's Word." It is a weak argument, even without the author's unfortunate tendency toward elaborate literary playfulness.

By presenting this book as fiction, and shelving it as such, it's entirely possible for the reader to discount it or to feel less moved. After all, it's only a story. For a skeptical or hard-hearted reader, a crime to which I will obviously confess, reading interviews and reviews of the book calls its facts into question--which parts really happened to these characters, we might ask? Which are inventions, based on the testimony of other characters (Lost Boys, Valentino helpfully reminds us, being in the habit of exaggerating their stories for sympathy). Because it's fiction, we're not given a bibliography or future references. It would be possible, a year from now, for someone to pick this book up unaware of its pedigree, be moved by the skill of writing and the character, and then completely disregard it as a true story that demands action.

Is that really the best way for Eggers to make his argument? That is a tough question to answer, especially since many people will claim to be uninterested in nonfiction. I will grant that, as such, it may find more readers than is otherwise likely. Yet my final argument is that the novel has been weakened even as fiction by its determination for self-referentiality. While aficianados of literary fiction may find it charming or clever, the constant interplay between the two stories--particularly when Valentino picks a new present-day character to whom he addresses his past narrative--is jarring. For many readers, it drops them out of their suspension of disbelief. Those members of his audience with Korsakov's Syndrome or other brain damage may thank Eggers for these constant reminders that yes, they are reading a book. It will save them tattoo ink, I'm sure. But for myself and I have no doubt a number of others, these additions don't create more value than they detract.

Why is it that Eggers can't simply leave the two storylines alone, that he has to complicate things in this way? Clearly, for some readers, the device will overshadow the work itself, which would seem to make the novel a failure. I am not willing to go that far. I will say that it is striking that Eggers still cannot write a book that does not eventually star himelf, even one where he does not appear inside. My uncharitable side is inclined to say that he's simply too self-absorbed to step aside without stealing a little bit of the spotlight. At best, I think he's just too clever for his own good.

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