Sunday, June 09, 2019

What Is the What (2006)

I knew virtually nothing about the Lost Boys of Sudan when I started Dave Eggers's "novel," but after finishing it I not only have a better understanding of that chapter of history, but the details are also impossibly vivid. I use the term novel in scare quotes because that is the book's marketing label and the category in which it won awards and acclaim. What Is the What is closer in form to a memoir—closer even than to biography, because it tells the story of Valentine Achak Deng in the first person. Achak (as he is most often called here) lost his parents and siblings and was forced to flee his Sudanese village on foot after it was overrun by violence and destruction in the long Sudanese civil war that lasted from 1983 to 2005. He was not even 10. Joining with others, he walked nearly 2,000 miles to a refuge in Ethiopia, from which he was ejected by wartime circumstances and forced to make another long trek on foot to Kenya. Eventually, as an adult, he finds his way to the US as an immigrant. What Eggers has done with this story is nothing less than remarkable. It does work like a novel because in many ways it's structured like one—with a 24-hour frame story set in Atlanta, where Achak finally lands, that proceeds with unreeling memories of his life. It works like a memoir because Eggers so completely occupies the point of view of Achak. Eggers already showed his skill for memoir and lost boys in his own tale published six years earlier, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, his first book. It's interesting to see someone so immersed in memoir who also appears to be so egoless, at least in his writing. What Is the What (subtitled The Autobiography of Valentine Achak Deng) works so well because there is so little Eggers and so much Achak. But the telling here counts nearly as much as the tale. By making it a novel, taking the liberties of flashbacks, information artfully withheld, suspense, and other techniques of fiction, it bypasses dry historical accounts and is that much more effective. Once here, Achak has nearly as many problems in the US, and ultimately this story encompasses American experience as much as Sudanese, Ethiopian, and Kenyan. And if Eggers has the human spirit of Achak right, as he seems to, he's even more shrewd about getting out of the way of it. In spite of a life of unimaginable privations and hardships, Achak is a warm light burning bright. You can't help but love him, and this book is the most direct way into that for most of us. I'm really tempted to call it a masterpiece.

In case it's not at the library.

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