My blog has moved!

You should be automatically redirected in 6 seconds. If not, visit
and update your bookmarks.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

What is the What

Dave Eggers. If you haven't heard of him, go out and buy his first book, "A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius" right now. The title may seem somewhat immodest, but it's also fairly accurate. It's one of the best books I have ever read and completely changed the way I think about fiction, aswell as kickstarting an ongoing obsession with a certain type of contemporary American literature.

I was given it by a boyfriend from Philadelphia who wrote beautiful things in the cover; I then rashly lent it to so many people that it came back with half its pages unbound and its corners frayed, though this seemed a worthy price for the unabashed joy I was sure the book was spreading throughout my dearly beloved. That said, I don't think everyone loved it as much as I did; like anything really powerful, it's a marmite-kind of book.

Anyhow I waited impatiently for Mr. Eggers' next work, and when his second novel, 'You Shall Know Our Velocity' finally came out (it is a given that D.E.'s work be always thus; quixotically, beautifully, ridiculously titled) I devoured it in great expectation. As with most things that one pre-emptively enjoys, it was just a tiny bit disappointing. That's not to say it wasn't enjoyable in parts, because I would argue it is impossible not to find moments of brilliance in anything over 2,000 words that Mr Eggers takes it upon himself to write; but it wasn't the masterpiece I was hoping for.

Accordingly, I wasn't so desperate to buy 'What is the What', his third book published here in May, and convinced myself I could wait for it to come out in paperback. But I couldn't wait that long. It's still only available in the UK in hardback, but imagine my glee on finding a U.S. paperback edition in the American bookshop in the Hague while home for Christmas. I have now, today, just this morning, finished it.

'What is the What' is a strange thing to define or grasp, like a kind of shapeshifting animal, and in this respect is echoes the cross-genre style that Eggers made his own in 'A Heartbreaking Work' (you can read an excerpt here:,6761,384966,00.html)

The thing about AHWOSG was that Eggers played very deliberately and with great humour on our perceptions of what it means to read: firstly, to read a novel - a fictional account that we can step back from, walk away from and dip into as escapism, and then conversely, to read non-fiction, specifically autobiography, where we imagine we are gaining a true insight into the real things that happened to someone.

'A Heartbreaking Work' is heartbreaking because it is concerned with telling the true story of the death of both Eggers' parents from cancer within 5 weeks of each other; their children are left to bring each other up, and Dave becomes the primary carer for his 8-year old brother Toph. What's staggering is the gut-wrenching honesty of the narration, but also the comic pathos, the ironic self-awareness that Eggers brings to the recounting of such bewildering personal tragedy. And all packaged in a post-post-modern double-bluffing box of tricks full of hand-drawn illustrations, blank pages, doodles, postscripts and endnotes.

'What is the What' initially seemed to follow a similar line in post-modern playfulness. It's full title is "What Is The What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng: A Novel By Dave Eggers". The preface reads:

"This book was born out of the desire on the part of myself and the author to reach out to others to help them understand the atrocities many successive governments of Sudan committed before and during the civil war. To that end, over the course of many years, I told my story orally to the author. He then concocted this novel, approximating my own voice and using the basic events of my life as the foundation. Because many of the passages are fictional, the result is called a novel...
- Valentino Achak Deng, Atlanta, 2006"

At first I assumed Valentino was a construct; his voice and indeed the preface itself, a clever conceit from Eggers to immerse us more fully into the novel's world. It's a tradition going back to Tristram Shandy. But then I noticed that on the back cover, a small note stated:

"All of the author's proceeds from this book will go to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, which distributes funds to Sudanese refugees in America; to rebuilding southern Sudan, beginning with Marial Bai; to organizations working for peace and humanitarian relief in Darfur; and to the college education of Valentino Achak Deng."

If Valentino Achak Deng was a construct, this was taking it a bit far, surely?

The answer, of course, is that this time, the preface is absolutely truthful. There is no post-modern trickery going on after all. There is simply an American writer and a former child refugee from Sudan trying to tell an urgent story in the most accessible and compelling way

Here's a picture of Dave Eggers with Valentino. The book itself is really worth reading and I would strongly recommend it. Dammit I'll even lend it to you, as long as you promise to return it without too many pages missing. Not so much because it is an incredible piece of 'literature' in the all-consuming, unputdownable way that the best novels are - it isn't. Sometimes it fails to flow; it's narrative techniques feel occasionally clunky; at times the plot moves slowly. But that's because it's based on truth, and unpalatable truths at that. The plot sometimes moves slowly but then for the refugees like Valentino who made it out of Southern Sudan alive, daily life was all too-often a slow-moving, repetitive list of tasks as they queued in overcrowded camps for clean water, watched each other die of avoidable diseases like dysentery and waited for schooling that took years to come. There is also a small amount of - actually for me very helpful - background on the problems in the Sudan, leading up to the genocide in Darfur and the infuriating inaction of our own governments. For some people the insertion of odd paragraphs explaining such things might seem patronizing, though they definitely helped me understand the context.

With 'What Is The What' I would say Eggers has done himself proud, and performed a great service to truth and to all of us who would otherwise stay disgracefully ignorant of some of the problems in Sudan. The New York Times called the book "an extraordinary work of witness", and in a way, I think it's our duty to read it. Terrible suffering deserves a terrible number of witnesses. And I think it's the author's hope that the book will also help us to become more present and active witnesses to Darfur's tragedy.

P.S. If you're interested, Eggers wrote an in-depth piece about the origins of the book for the Guardian here:,,2088375,00.html

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Brilliant work, yet again! I want you to lend me the books please. BUJ x