When I talk about Dave Eggers with people—friends, family members, strangers in bars—this is usually what happens: These people say they only liked half of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, or that they didn't like any of You Shall Know Our Velocity, or that they didn't even know about the collection of short stories How We Are Hungry. Sometimes they're more to the point, expressing a disdain for how big Eggers' lit journal/publishing house, McSweeney's, has become, or they're even more to the point, expressing a disdain for how big Eggers has become. When this happens—at home, in pubs, on street corners—I want to stand in front of these people, place my hands on their shoulders, and begin a whiplash-inducing shaking. "Eggers is one of the best we have," I want to tell/shake them. "He is writing important things, and he is writing them well." I hold myself back, mostly because I'm chickenshit; instead, I sheepishly nod and say something limp, like, "Well, yeah, not everybody likes him as much as I do." But oh, how I picture the shaking.
Which, yes, is a skewed way of thinking about this sort of thing. Thankfully, the Erik-doesn't-know-how-to-meaningfully-interact-with-those-who-don't-share-his-opinions-regarding-the-writings-of-Dave-Eggers era might be at an end, thanks to What Is the What, Eggers' latest—a book that, frankly, I can't picture anyone with even half a soul being disdainful of. Simultaneously a novel and an autobiography—the subject being not Eggers, but Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan—What Is the What retraces Deng's life from Deng's own memories.
"This book is the soulful account of my life: from the time I was separated from my family in Marial Bai to the 13 years I spent in Ethiopian and Kenyan refugee camps, to my encounters with vibrant Western cultures, in Atlanta and elsewhere," Deng writes in the novel's preface, setting the stage for Eggers to follow Deng from the moment his village is burned, to his march across vicious deserts, to his arrival in America, a place more bounteous and treacherous than Deng imagined. Approximating Deng's stilted English, Eggers captures the spirit of Deng's journey—though, even at 475 pages, it feels rushed; the feeling one has upon finishing What Is the What is the same exhausted but still fascinated sensation that accompanies the final pages of another great work of journalistic fiction, Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song. "How could I possibly put everything down on paper?" Deng wonders, as he's asked to do just that at one of the camps. "It seemed impossible. No matter what, the majority of my life would be left out of this story, this sliver of a version of the life I'd known. But I tried anyway.... I worked on it for weeks more, thinking of every last thing I had seen, every path and tree and pair of yellowed eyes, every body I buried."
There are a lot of bodies in What Is the What; like grisly mile markers along Deng's passage, they rot alone and in piles, they slouch against trees and lose the strength to rise, they stride through grass until they're clamped in lions' jaws, they scream in fervor and fright at the sermons of charismatic warlords. But terrifying people is easy, and depressing them even more so. The most striking thing about What is the What, then, isn't Deng's horrendous childhood, but his supernatural endurance. Deng is not some cartoonish Pollyanna, nor is he oblivious to the myriad injustices imposed upon him: Deng tries to die, Deng loses his faith, Deng is worn down. But Deng also survives, and Eggers turns out to be the perfect writer to convey his mix of luck and strength. Eschewing his usual self-centeredness and postmodern playfulness, here Eggers is single-mindedly intent on conveying Deng's voice, and capturing his life's striking, sometimes contradictory themes: great loss paired with greater pain; unyielding realities tinged with hope; and a cynical pragmatism that Eggers and Deng both, perhaps futilely, rail against. (Indeed, for a book that's so frequently horrifying, it's astonishing how funny and sanguine What Is the What ultimately proves.) In paring another's life down to its stark, hard bones, Eggers has created a novel full of horrible, beautiful, life-changing stuff. I know how melodramatic that sounds, how adulatory, how it has all the subtlety of me grabbing your shoulders and shaking you. But I can't figure out how else to say it, how else to impress this upon you: Read this book.