Colin McKay Miller's Reviews > What Is the What

What Is the What by Dave Eggers
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Jul 28, 08

bookshelves: novels, book-club-picks, nonfiction
Read in July, 2008

Dave Eggers’ What is the What is a fairly quick read for being over 500 pages. The novel is the fictionalized autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a southern Sudanese Lost Boy making his way from a war-torn nation to the United States. Fear not, it’s not a fictionalized autobiography in the vein of James Frey. It’s based on years of conversation between Eggers and Deng. Deng felt as though he wasn’t ready to write a book and Eggers felt as though he knew (and appreciated) Deng’s voice enough to write it as an autobiography, filling in conversations and minor details as need be. Still not convinced it’s legit? You’re not alone, but at least the profits go towards the Valentino Achak Deng (VAD) Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to provide opportunities in southern Sudanese communities.

Oh, and the book is pretty good, too. Inevitably there are parts that are clearly Eggers speaking instead of Deng, but the initial hook laid out by the first chapter draws the reader in past whatever distinctions could be made between the two. Some of the descriptions of the war are amazing and harrowing (one part describes the earth exploding as if a giant fist is punching upward from the inside), yet there is an air of lightheartedness still carried on by youth and Deng’s humor (most of which stems from the Sudanese not understanding American culture, but not in a cruel way).

As the novel goes on, however, the reader starts to wonder why this book is over 500 pages. Despite Deng’s insistence that the Sudanese like the fullness of their opinions to be told, perhaps Eggers should have made more editorial decisions. As it stands, there is so much in What is the What that many scenes end up feeling clipped short. Additionally, devices that were initially intriguing—like Deng’s insistence to tell the person in front of him his story, if only in his head—become exacerbating, especially in the final chapters. Despite these flaws, the beauty of the storytelling, the strength of many of the minor characters (especially Moses, Maria and the bike man who hides fruit in the ground), the ever-present task of defining “The What” and the final chapter make reading What is the What more than just an act of charity. Three stars.
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