What Is The What
Dave Eggers' history as the motive force behind the experimental, expectations-challenging literary-goofery platform McSweeney's hangs heavily over his new book, What Is The What. Simultaneously billed as an autobiography and a novel, it does manage to be both: Eggers interviewed Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng at length about his life, then wove his horrifying story into a fictionalized narrative. Eggers' stagy, novelistic writing is jarring, and it inevitably casts every given fact into doubt. But while it's sometimes hard to take the literary tropes seriously, the autobiographical content is riveting, and in all likelihood, more accessible than any similarly massive, sprawling non-fiction treatise on Sudan's politics.
Eggers frames Deng's story with a break-in at his home: Living as a political refugee in America, Deng is assaulted and robbed in his apartment, and his ordeal stretches out throughout 475 pages as, suffering, he recalls how he suffered as a child in Sudan. A child of an African tribe, the Dinka, he grows up in an ethnically mixed area, but political events far away forcibly set Arab tribesmen from north Sudan against the Africans in the south. The rebel group SPLA, led by Dinka John Garang, is no friendlier, and Deng and his family are caught in the middle, seeking safe havens in an increasingly unstable, violent battleground. When Arab horsemen destroy Deng's village, he starts a lengthy journey that lasts more than a decade and leads to multiple countries and refugee camps.
Eggers skims over the region's voluminous religious and political divides, presenting a bare-bones version of events and concentrating on the increasingly wild rumors and hopes that the refugees live by, and on the mundane details of life for a lost child in a generation of them. In his oddest conceit, his version of Deng mentally addresses each new installment of his story to the individuals he encounters or remembers, evoking their names over and over as he describes his heartbreaking journey. He isn't telling an abstract story to the air, he's recounting his own life directly and determinately to real people, demanding that they hear and see him. Though he couches that force of will in a mild, polite voice, it's hard to resist in any format. His story comes in an odd shape, but it reads as a story that must be told, and must be attended.