Dave Eggers: What is the What (McSweeney’s, 2006)

April 10th, 2007

By Bryan Kerwin

At first glance, it seems a bizarre combination: Dave Eggers, he of the Midwestern upbringing and rabid hipster fanbase, befriends Valentino Achack Deng, a Sudanese refugee transported to Atlanta. He then decides to write a book telling the story of Deng’s life, the violent civil war engulfing his home country, and his years as one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan, raised parentless in refugee camps until he was afforded a new opportunity in America.

Eggers decides to tell this story as an autobiography, in Deng’s own voice. It’s a risky conceit, but Eggers has the talent to pull it off, and do it beautifully. He’s actually a perfect choice to author Deng’s at-times-unbearably-sad life story, as one of the strengths of Eggers work is in his gorgeously poetic rendering of human suffering. He’s able to combine that sensibility with Deng’s voice – a just-broken-enough English that is surprisingly matter-of-fact – and recreate situations with enormous sympathy for the characters. Reading the novel manages to be visceral and heartbreaking without ever falling off the cliff into melodrama (which would have been way, way easy).

Though many of the passages have been fictionalized, (and what author hasn’t fictionalized parts of their actual autobiographies?) the book’s message ultimately transcends how factually accurate it is. It’s a moving and personal portrait of the things war, greed and hatred cause humans to do to each other, and the strength it takes to survive in a harsh world. As Valentino says himself in the novel’s preface, “This book is a form of struggle, and it keeps my spirit alive to struggle.” Also, did I mention that all the proceeds from the book go to The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation? Read some good literature and donate to a good cause all at once.

Whaling Wall Matthew Farrell
Chow Feng Shui Josh Elmer
Stained Glass Ceiling Emily McNeill
Anarchitect Mike Berlin
SaHarrison Desert Harrison Flatau
Metrolollipopolis Jennifer Konerman
Tropic of Scurvy Heather Newberger
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Front cover and back cover of print edition by Jake I. Forney.
Section dividers of print edition by Jake I. Forney and Justin Lubliner.