Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Book Review: What Is the What

What Is the What, by Dave Eggers *Click here to request this book*What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng: A Novel, by Dave Eggers

This amazing work, one of Time's 10 Best Books of 2006, features one of the most memorable and finely-wrought fictional characters that I have experienced. The problem? It's not quite fiction.

The protagonist, Valentino (his Christian name), is a refugee from the civil war in Sudan. His village, Marial Bai, was bombed and attacked; he has assumed that his entire family is dead. Valentino set off with an ever-growing group of other displaced boys, headed for presumed sanctuary across the Ethiopian border. He recounts this absolutely harrowing journey, and his life in refugee camps afterwards, through the lens of his admittedly less-than-spectacular resettled life in Atlanta, Georgia. Valentino, as we meet him in the present day, is in the process of being robbed and assaulted in his own apartment. He is telling his story, piece by piece and albeit only in his head, to his assailants, a useless police officer, an unsympathetic hospital employee, and various other people he meets along the way.

By the time you reach the end of this thick book, you really feel as though you have come to know this character, that you've almost been living inside his head. It is so amazing, you think, that an author could create a character who could move you so much, who you have come to feel is a real person. But wait. Valentino Achak Deng is a real person. He has even written the preface to the book! He says that the book approximates "my own voice" and uses "the basic events of my life as the foundation." However, "Because many passages are fictional, the result is called a novel." "AAAAAAAAAH!" you scream. But what was real! What was fake?! Which of the so many deeply affecting moments in the book actually happened, and which did not? Which were embellishments of the truth, exaggerations provided for maximum literary effect? The written voice of the preface and the actual book are indistinguishable. The lengthy list of acknowledgements features the names of several "characters" that have appeared in the book.

Dave Eggers has succeeded in driving me crazy again, having written an absolutely astounding work that I cannot embrace wholeheartedly because it is not-quite-fiction, and yet not-quite-non-fiction (see A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius). Maybe he's doing it to push the literary envelope, but Eggers' refusal to commit to one side or the other almost totally invalidates the emotional experience of the book for me. It cheapens the experience, and somehow I feel it does an injustice to the real-life Valentino Achak Deng, who I'm sure is willing to explore nearly any avenue to raise awareness of the plight of his country and that of the other Lost Boys of Sudan. Maybe I'm missing something, or I'm just too literal, but for now I will continue to have a love-hate relationship with Dave Eggers. --Vicky

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