What is the What

Truth be told, I enjoyed Dave Eggers’ latest novel, What is the What, much more than his debut memoir, A Heart-breaking Work of Staggering Genius. But, as will be made clear, even my choice of words points to my initial misgivings. Should the story of a Sudanese refugee be an enjoyable read? Are we to believe The Auto-biography of Valentino Achak Deng is his story? Eggers straddled the divide between fiction and non-fiction with A Heart-breaking Work, the story of his life after both his parents died within weeks of each-other. His representation or mis-representation causing some consternation.


The story goes that if the author is cited as being present in all his self-referential self-referencing, we can deduce that none of the characters, however much they may be based on real people, are present. Don’t worry – the author is aware of his awareness. It can work as a shield to deflect criticism, because we know the flatness of the dialogue plays out the ideas for Eggers’ existential truth, that the book is being written if not to redeem the author, then hopefully to cure him of his solipsism. But when the author tells someone else’s story is it implicitly recognised that he has assumed their voice as well? Valentino Achak Deng is a real person. This is his autobiography. Yet it is written by Dave Eggers. It is remiss not to think telling What is the What through the voice of Valentino Achak Deng has moral as well as aesthetic implications.

Writing in New York Magazine, David Amsden begins his review by stating in positive refrain everything What is the What is not. There is not, says Amsden “a single grieving white male of high education and questionable maturity”. It is unclear if he means Eggers the ‘author’ or Eggers the ‘character’. Having just read A Heart-breaking Work what struck me most was how uncomfortable I was with the first person narrative. It was discernibly different from Eggers previous work, but not a wholly assumed voice. It has a forced unadorned pathos that varies from didactic to lyrical, simple-minded to educated and angry. In his vitriolic take-down Lee Siegel accuses Eggers of “post-colonial arrogance” Siegel quotes excerpts towards the end of the book that show how, gradually, Eggers’ subsumes Valentino’s voice into his own:

I speak to these people, and I speak to you because I cannot help it. It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there. I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us. How blessed are we to have each other? I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words. I will fill today, tomorrow, every day until I am taken back to God.

And from A Heartbreaking Work:

And we will be ready, at the end of every day, will be ready, will not say no to anything, will try to stay awake while everyone is sleeping, will not sleep, will make the shoes with the elves, will breathe deeply all the time, breathe in all the air full of glass and nails and blood, will breathe it and drink it, so rich, so when it comes we will not be angry, will be content, tired enough to go, gratefully, will shake hands with everyone, bye, bye, and then pack a bag, some snacks, and go to the volcano —

Siegel’s attack is not only on Eggers and What is the What, but all the McSweenyites of the same ilk. I am less inclined to tar so many authors with same brush, but Siegel has a point. Well, he has more than one point, but the one that resonates most is the term ‘sincerony’: what Siegel classes as a sincere “post-postmodern half-irony”. Eggers brings his gravitas to champion the cause of the Sudanese, but he also brings his own persona and tropes of story-telling.

After the Lost boys have walked hundreds of kilometres through the desert and arrive at a village where they hope to stay for the night, the women of the village try their best to describe what the boys look like. “Like eggs sitting on top of twigs”, one woman suggests. You sense the author is trying to summon a pertinent image, grappling with the humour and tragedy of the remark from the women that is meant to mock as well as ward off the boys. It is an image of dollar-a-day African child that we are familiar with, that no longer holds the shock of the new. “They’re like spoons. They look like spoons walking!” one woman finally decides. When the boy’s self-appointed leader talks to the chief, and asks him if he knows the implications of what he is saying, the deep roots of irony in What is the What and Eggers’ re-telling are exposed.

See also:

The Niceness Racket, The New Republic, Lee Siegel

Truly Heartbreaking, NY Mag, David Amsden

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