This review of the novel What is the What by Dave Eggers was originally published on ABC Radio National’s The Book Show
When I ripped open the parcel to find Dave Eggers’ new book, What is the What, I was grinning like a spoilt brat at Christmas. I stroked off the white fluff left by the packaging, opened the book somewhere in the middle, and took a great big whiff. I was at the train station. A young girl looked at me funny, like I was some kind of weirdo, caressing and smelling this large brown book. But I’m just one of many young readers who live with a kind of expectant longing for every new Eggers release. And since his debut memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the majority of Eggers’ fiction has faithfully and thankfully lived up to those expectations. He tells moving stories in exciting, accessible language that is never far removed from the way we actually feel, think, write and speak.
But by about 30 pages in to What is the What, I knew that I was in for something quite different from the Dave Eggers I know and love. There was only one picture — and that’s a Tolkienesque map. No onomatopoeia. No impassioned rambling. A quote from the movie Donnie Darko kept bouncing around in my head. When Donnie challenges his friends’ playful speculation about the sexuality of the Smurfs, they say, ‘Why’d ya hafta go and get so smart on us, Donnie?’ I wondered why Eggers had gone and got so serious on us.
In A Heartbreaking Work, Eggers twitched onomatopoeia, diagrams and long-winded, self-reflexive intros into a sprawling, autobiographical narrative. It was self-indulgent and hard to follow at times, sure, but so are a lot of the young readers the book appealed to. With his second book and first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity!, Eggers weaved that same endearing style into a coherent narrative. The autobiographical flair was still there. And in his first short story collection, How We Are Hungry, he maintained the whimsical humour that seemed to invite a range of fuddy-duddy critics to question his maturity.
It was only with his second collection, Short Short Stories, and an earlier novella, The Unforbidden is Compulsory or, Optimism, that I saw the first signs that Eggers might want to leave Never Never Land. He stepped away from stories about himself, into lashings of political and American-pop-cultural satire. But even those books couldn’t have prepared me for the change in style, tone and subject that I struggled with in What is the What.
I’m hesitant to suggest — as some have — that What is the What is the long-awaited maturing of Eggers’ style. Or that this book reveals Egger’s true, latent genius. To do so would not only discredit the value of his earlier, humorous works; it would also be disheartening to suggest that Eggers has nothing more to offer after this. The ominously serious What is the What feels like an over-compensation for the criticism of his earlier, so-called immature work, rather than a true development of his natural style. So while this novel might be remembered as a turning point in his career, style and approach to the representation of truth in fiction, the next great novel is yet to come. Before I explain why, it’ll help to know a bit about the book.
What is the What is the novelised autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, one of tens of thousands of refugees who would come to be known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. In one of two parallel narratives, Valentino flees Marial Bai, a village of the Dinka tribe, upon the outbreak of the Second Sudanese Civil War in 1983. Chased out by the Murahaleen, the Dinka’s ancient tribal enemy armed by the Sudanese government, Valentino spent the rest of his adolescence between Kenya and Ethiopia, in refugee camps. All this is told by 28-year-old Valentino from Atlanta, America, where he was finally promised sanctuary in 2001. However, the American narrative opens with Valentino getting burgled and assaulted in his apartment, so it quickly becomes a powerful reflection on contemporary American society. Assimilating into American culture is so troubling to Valentino that he yearns for war-torn Southern Sudan, where at least he understood the nature of the threat he was facing.
In the natural voice of his earlier writing, Eggers establishes his characters well enough to let the reader do the rest of the work — leaving Eggers free to propel the narrative along. But Eggers seemed to struggle with Valentino’s voice, constantly pushing the narrator’s character along on the surface of the narrative. This becomes long-winded and repetitive, and the momentum seems to dry up in what should have been a far more engrossing story.
Also, much of the Sudanese story is brought into the American narrative with the unwieldy device of the narratee: something about each character in Atlanta always reminds Valentino of the next element of the Sudanese narrative to be told. So he tells it to them. Again and again.
However disruptive and implausible this device, each narratee is a plea to the American people, not so much for help, but simply for awareness. If the story were told to the standard, abstract narratee, it would only ever be addressing whoever happened to pick up the book. It’s simply unfortunate that Eggers wasn’t able to blend the device into the narrative more smoothly. Because, while What is the What might represent the culmination of Valentino’s story to date, unfortunately the writing strays too far from Eggers’ true style for it to retain the attention of the young readers he wooed in his earlier work.
I don’t mean to sound irreverent by suggesting that What is the What would have been better if it was funnier. It’s just that I strongly believe humour, light-heartedness even, to be the most compelling, and therefore valuable, way to attract young readers’ attention to important ideas like this. Just as Eggers did with Optimism, a hilarious and seamless parody of the election campaigns of four local American politicians.
In fact, I think the culmination I’m waiting for will come in the form of the longer work from which Optimism is drawn, as that novella merges the three greatest characteristics found throughout Eggers’ fiction: seamless, entertaining and thought-provoking narrative. I’ll happily wait at the train station while Eggers rights himself from this over-compensation to the sensibilities of the fuddy-duddies.