This was originally posted in October 2007 on my other blog, Vaguely Borgesian. Gathering the reviews from there here so they will all be in one central location.Dave Eggers has written some incredible books over the years spanning all sorts of genres. From his 1999 autobiographical work, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, to neo-hipster writings such as You Shall Know Our Velocity! to his editorial work/social commentary on the plight of young urban teachers such as myself, Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of Today’s Teachers, Eggers has displayed a combination of a keen insight into the minutiae of everyday life that makes the difficult and sometimes outlandishly cruel quotidian elements such compelling reading material. But in this 2006 biographical “novel,” What is the What, Eggers may have written one of the most human of novels that I have read this decade to date.
What is the What tells the story of Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng. Although Deng is a real person which Eggers interviewed extensively over a period of months, due to the conflation of people and situations, Deng’s story as written by Eggers is labeled as a novel. Regardless of the technically fictional work, this story has the brutal force of a kick to the genitals.
Beginning when Deng was barely out of infancy in the mid-1980s, his homeland of Sudan has been the force of tensions between the Muslim Arabs to the north and the Christian and Animist Dinka to the south, with almost continual civil war since 1983. Today, we hear so much about the plight of the refugees of Sudan’s Darfur region, but little about the Dinka who have suffered for almost 25 years. Those of us such as myself reading or hearing about this conflict might feel inclined to sigh out a “oh, that sucks!” without ever really thinking about the many layers to the suffering that a refugee undergoes when he or she is removed from the home and from family, all too often a witness to scenes of brutality and suffering that we cannot even hope to fathom, much less imagine.
Deng as the first-person narrator in this tale does a lot to strip away this distance. Beginning with him being robbed in Atlanta soon after his repatriation to the United States in 2001, Deng tells his story to a somewhat-imagined audience of a captor’s child or a distant hospital staff member, drifting between the past and the present in a way that makes not just the initial suffering but also his present struggles all the more immediate and easier for us to understand. His tales of growing tensions between the Arabs and the Dinka are intertwined with his first crushes and his oft-humorous faux pas. These interludes humanize the situation and allow the reader to break out of the “oh man, he’s lived such a dreadful life, I cannot begin to understand what he’s been through” cycle and into the “hey, I’ve been through that before!” moments that allow for a greater emotional bond with the narrator version of Deng.
Eggers does an outstanding job of constructing these moments into a story that not only feels authentic due to the source material, but which serves as a statement of the humanity contained within such inhumane experiences that affects the reader in ways that even the most graphic of documentaries cannot hope to accomplish. As a novel and even more as a story of human experience, What is the What is one of the best tales I have read in years.