What Is the What
By Dave Eggers. McSweeney's, $26.
At the opening of this fictionalized memoir, Valentino Achak Deng lies on his living-room floor, bloodied and beaten. A man and a woman are robbing him blind, and though his pistol-whipped head is cloudy, one thought persists: This is not the worst of my suffering.
Deng is a flesh-and-blood Lost Boy of Sudan, one of the thousands of refugees who fled the African country after years of civil strife, walking through desert and jungle and eventually landing across the globe. Over the course of several years, Eggers interviewed Deng about his escape and his life in America, and the result is this odd hybrid of the real and unreal. The book is a novel, but it hews closely to real events in Deng’s life. In essence, Eggers channels Deng and the horrors suffered by the Lost Boys for 400 pages.
Of course, readers will bring their own caveats to this book. Eggers has built a reputation—for better or for worse—as a good-hearted literary experimentalist. Messing with form and taking the unreliable narrator trope beyond its logical extremes, Eggers has often been accused of masking the truth in his work behind various tricks, or at the worst, puffing up smokescreens to hide the fact that there isn’t much there at all.
Whether previous criticisms are justified or not (for the record, we think they’re not), the power of this new book is undeniable. Taking on the voice of Deng, Eggers has built a stubbornly humane history of the Sudanese tragedy, one that neither shies from nor exploits brutality.
Why is it a novel and not a biography? The benefits come when Eggers’s formidable creative talents take control, presumably not misrepresenting Deng’s story, but not even warping it as he finds the right tone for Deng’s variegated tragedies. When Deng regrets losing a friend, Eggers writes, “But everyone disappears, no matter who loves them.” The novel if full of these succinct mournings. Eggers is as empathic as authors come, and has a way of writing single sentences that feel like entire books.—Jonathan Messinger