Tung's Reviews > What Is the What
What Is the What
by Dave Eggers
by Dave Eggers
Disclaimer upfront: I thought A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was overrated, and And They Shall Know Our Velocity was atrocious. So overall, not a huge fan of Eggers and don’t think him this leader of contemporary fiction so many others do. What is the What, however, is the best of the 3 Eggers books I’ve read, and it is a fine work. This book is a detailed glimpse at the life of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan – a fictionalized account of the actual life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee now living in America. Eggers apparently spent a lot of time speaking to Achak and getting his life story: how he lived, why he fled, how horrific his flight to Ethiopian refugee camps was, what life was like in that camp, his transition to living in America, etc. Eggers also uses an interesting narrative trick: Achak narrates his story to different people around him in the book. At the beginning of the story, Achak is robbed in his Atlanta home and then bound and gagged. A young boy named Michael is assigned to watch over him. The first third of Achak’s story is narrated to Michael. Achak is then taken to a hospital to treat his wounds, and he narrates some of his story to the registration nurse at the hospital while he waits. This is a great device, as it feels like Achak is aware that people around him are staring at him and judging him, and he has so much of his experience to share with others around him that explain who he is and what he has been through that he mentally details his life to them. The prose in this book is first-rate because of this structure and unique voice. My only problem with this book was that it was nearly 500 pages long and it feels it. Unlike Special Topics in Calamity Physics that didn’t feel its length, this book does. Eggers (through Achak) early on states that the Sudanese like to speak (and speak and speak). You can imagine these interview sessions between Eggers and the real-life Achak, and picture Achak talking for hours. So Eggers captures all of the very many details and experiences related by Achak to us. I understand that, but this book still felt a bit too long. Minor gripe; Eggers deserves the praise he’s getting for his book this time.
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