Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Books: What is the What, by Dave Eggers

It is true; I love Dave Eggers, but this time around, my love creates an authorial disadvantage (or, perhaps, it is a readerly disadvantage, since he probably doesn't really care whether I personally enjoy his books or not). The thing about What is the What is that it is an autobiography. . . of a person who is not Dave Eggers. A person who is not only not Dave Eggers, but also not much like Dave Eggers: a person who doesn't share Dave Eggers particular fascinations and neuroses (the ones that I do share, that bind me to him as a storyteller). This person is Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese Lost Boy who eventually made it to the US and told Eggers his story.

There are plenty enough questions/concerns to be discussed with regard to Eggers' writing this book for Deng and then calling it an autobiography (there is a small disclosure in which the author and Deng explain that it is a "novelized autobiography," and that parts of the story have been nudged into fiction from fact, certain anecdotes and experiences belonging, perhaps, to another Lost Boy)—because of the disclosure, those questions are less the kind the Reading Machine usually generates with regard to defining and disclosing genre, but more questions about race and culture and why a Sudanese Lost Boy might give his story to a white man living in San Francisco for the telling, rather than write it up himself. But I'm not all that interested in those questions.

I'm not, in fact, very question-y at all, literary-wise, about this book. Eggers tells Deng's story in an innocent, direct way, with all the expected heart-tugging you could hope for. The story is structured in simple flashback; Deng, now living in Atlanta and struggling to succeed with a part-time job and junior college, silently "tells" his story to a number of people he encounters over a few traumatic days (when his apartment is broken into). To be honest, I could do without this (and interestingly enough, it is the only visible Eggers vestige in the book); it feels forced and put on in contrast with Deng's limpid naivete.

The real questions (and I imagine that these are the questions both Deng and Eggers desperately want readers to have) are political, social, ethical. How can this have happened? Deng's story begins in the very early 1980s; he is separated from his family by marauding invaders from the North right about when I was born. Why, then, did I not hear anything about Sudan until I was in college? Not that I, personally, knowing about it can (will?) do much of anything, but. . . how can these things happen at all, whether in secret or not? Somehow, I've come to take certain, more historical horrors, for granted (e.g. the Holocaust, which is as distant as the American Revolution, and somehow as inevitable*). Eggers (and Deng) can't help us here; the reader does get a good sense of Sudan's recent history, but the story is not a new one; one group of people wants another group of people disappeared for reasons pertaining to money and land (color and religion helping along the way), and the robbery at Deng's Atlanta apartment only reconfirms the universality of the combination of evil, stupidity, and need. Hardly an upper, hardly fresh, but still news to some people.

*Please send hate mail and death threats to the dahlhaus.

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