Dave Eggers’ What is the What is a fiction novel that’s very nearly the precise life’s story of a Lost Boy of Sudan. This fact makes it terribly urgent for a novel—almost too urgent to be enjoyed as such.
Thankfully, there’s enough heart here in the characters and drama (and a good measure of humor, too) that this book is more than educational. I don’t often know what people mean when they praise a book for its “humanity”, but the term certainly comes to mind when I think about what makes What is the What worthwhile as both an enjoyable epic and an informative call to action.
When he was around nine years old, Valentino Achak Deng was forced to flee his southern Sudanese town of Marial Bai as it was raided by Arabs. He was separated from his family and friends as he began a trek that almost spanned Sudan into Ethiopia, facing famine, predators, disease, and aerial attacks from government helicopters and jets.
The waves of displaced children (mostly male) who made this trip out of Sudan became known as the Lost Boys—thousands of whom later were accepted into the United States. Valentino himself now lives in America, and this book is the story of how he got here (against all probability) and what he struggles to do next.
(NOTE: The reason What is the What is labeled fiction rather than biography, as explained in the preface, is that Valentino lacks the details of many early childhood memories, so too much reimagination was necessary to call it straight non-fiction.)
“God wants us dead. He’s trying to kill us.”
In his odyssey Valentino encounters, of course, truly evil people, from the various militant ethnic group members who hunt the boys to the rebel army leaders who don’t understand that executing war prisoners in front of the nine-year-olds isn’t a good tool for recruiting them. What you don’t expect, and then find powerfully heartening, is the sheer goodness in others that emerges, even thrives, in the poisoned landscape of genocide.
It’s clear that Valentino’s life is saved time and again by his friends and by some truly heroic adults, like Dut, the economics major who organizes and tirelessly leads the hundreds of boys in their trek. There are many adults, perhaps partly out of the despairing loss of their own children, who eagerly take Valentino and other boys under their wing, if only temporarily.
Some benificent encounters are surreal. It’s hard to forget the “Man Who Was Not There,” who gives him ice-cold water and teaches him to ride a bike in the middle of the desert, and is never seen again.
Valentino’s situation in present day America, though, is complicated. The book ingeniously opens with his first experience of being robbed in his Atlanta apartment, and he is shown that for all the material comforts life in the U.S. provides, it certainly lacks in community. Left bound and alone, Valentino kicks at his door for hours, to no avail:
This is impossible, that no one would come to this door. Is the noise of the world so cacophonous that mine cannot be heard? I ask only for one person! One person coming to my door will be enough.
The book doesn’t claim that life for the Sudanese is nearly as unjust in the U.S. as it was in the African war zones, but through Valentino you see an America falling far short of its purported ideas of wholly accommodating the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to better their lives.
Moralizing? Yeah—you got a problem with that? It’s at times even shaming, but when it comes to America and the rest of the global community needing to be ashamed of itself over a lack of response to Africa, I’ve been quite on board with that for a while now.
“The Collapsible Space Between Us”
By no means should you, or would you, expect an unchallenging read of this subject matter. Starving boys are bombed by their own government’s jets. Refugees flee across an Ethiopian river as they are massacred by rifle-toting tribesmen. But the book never dares you to shut it in horror. Valentino’s voice and Eggers’ light hand keep it all from seeming overwhelming or emotionally manipulative.
I felt this book where it counted. Few lines have ruptured me so beautifully as, “How blessed are we to have each other?”
It’s terrifically accessible and readable, but what’s regrettable about What is the What is that it hits many dips in the story where it’s not exactly a page-turner. As the novel progresses, more of that dark area between Valentino’s exodus and his eventual settling in Atlanta is filled in with anecdotes. But the more that’s filled in, the less that’s left for you to learn, and there comes a point where the most gripping portions of his journey have all but been revealed. Your interest in the story might diminish as it goes along.
I hate to say it, but What is the What had a weakening gravitational pull, which is how I floated off and read several other non-related books within the span of this one.
If you’ve read Eggers’ earlier works, this book becomes very impressive on an artistic level. Maybe you became acquainted with this author via his dementedly exuberant voice in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (which for many Generation Xers was their A Catcher in the Rye). He said that once he’d written his memoir, though, he was pretty much done talking about himself and was eager to tell someone else’s story for a change. How stunning then is the discovery that the crazy avant-garde Dave Eggers vanishes completely within Valentino’s plain-spoken, subtle amiability.
So you won’t be getting Eggers here, and for the very best of reasons. Every facet of What is the What is commanded by the book’s Purpose: getting this story told and having it reach as many people as it can (part of the reason its paperback was published by Vintage as opposed to Eggers’ more esoteric brainchild, McSweeney’s). Fortunately, Purpose also dictated that Eggers write an enjoyable novel that everyone can, and ought to, read.