Saturday, December 15, 2007

Book Review: What is the What – Dave Eggers

It will come as no surprise to any of those who know me or (or those few who read what I write) that I have a very soft spot in my heart for Dave and his McSweeney family. I won’t get into why. I will agree, though, that he hasn’t written a good novel yet. Even his short fiction has never even come close to his debut memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. But even as it seemed that he was possibly fading into the late 90’s and becoming simply an aging crack-pot celebrity philanthropist, it turns out he was up to much, much more.

Over the four years (2002-2006) he worked with Valentino Achak Deng to bring his story to our attention. With the same deft touch that he exhibited in AHWOSG, What is the What is touching, funny, and startlingly easy to identify with. There is virtually no hit of Eggers smarmy earnestness, the narration is given with a complete purity of voice. It is very difficult to tell where the writer leaves off and the narrator begins, but you quickly warm to Valentino, becoming engrossed in his complete melodrama of a life.

There are structural issues and a few low bits where a history lesson obtusely interrupts the action, but I wish to leave my issues aside. I have not been touched by a book (or maybe a person) in the way that I was by What is the What.

I encourage anyone who wants to know more about the Sudan and the Lost Boys who fled the country during its prolonged civil war to read it. I encourage anyone who wishes they could make the lives of others better to read it. I encourage anyone who thinks they didn’t get what they wanted for Christmas to read it.

In You Shall Know Our Velocity!, Eggers muses about the urge to give. If you were shipwrecked on an island and discovered another person there, you would give him half of whatever you have. This would be obvious; no decision to be made. If a week or so later another person washed up, you would share with him too. But somehow, even with this natural urge to keep each other alive, there is some number at which people become not like us and we no longer feel the compulsion to share. Valentino has suffered a great deal and needs our help. It is no accident that Eggers has distilled the problems of a people into this one smiling man.

Please give to him anyways.

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