Monthly Archives: February 2008

Mr Thursday’s Book Shelf: WHAT IS THE WHAT?

Sometimes, I’m not sure if Dave Eggers is a genius or a nuisance.  He’s definitely a prose-wizard, as the term goes, and while every sentence is written with enough skill and nuance to illuminate the most slippery scenes with depth and humor that writers like myself would die for.  Or kill for.  Or maim, at the least.  His major short-coming, as a writer, however, is that his books contain a lack of what Keith Laws likes to call “narrative greed”.  In Eggers’ novelized autobiography, he runs out of over-arching drive after the depicted the death of his parents.  In a way, this is a useful literary device–that the aimlessness of that book would reflect the emotions of the characters.  However, in Eggers novel You Will Know Our Velocity, Eggers finds himself flopping about without the driving force of plot, yet again.

What is the What unites the power of Eggers’ words with a story to match–that of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Sudanese Lost Boys.  The story is biographical–it is of Deng’s efforts to survive, torn from his family at a young age and by necessity he marched hundreds and hundreds of miles across Sudan and Ethiopia and Kenya before finally making it to America.  Deng is, at times, overjoyed, lonely, suicidal, frustrated, confused, aroused and desperate.   The villain of the story, which is all one thing but is embodied by war and racism, stupidity, greed, and ignorance, is fully believable, and utterly relentless.  No matter where Deng goes, he is in danger, and he makes mistakes, and suffers the mistakes of others.   Often, there is nothing he can do to improve his situation, and at times, his actions make his life worse.

The book is called a novel though in Deng’s preface, he acknowledges that the book’s events are all true.  However, Deng is unable to recall precisely the events of twenty years ago, and so while Eggers invented nothing, some of the accounts that make up the books early chapters are, we can assume, somewhat fictional recreations.

The title refers to a story told to him by his father, a respected merchant among his people, the Dinka.  When God created the Earth, he offered the Dinka people the choice between the cow, and the What.  The Dinka chose the cow, because they were familiar with it, and saw What as a fool’s choice.  As the book goes on, Deng learns that, perhaps, this parable did not give the wisest advice, and learns to seek the What.

The book is framed by an event of Deng’s life in Atlanta, GA, and so, despite the constant danger, the reader can know that Deng will survive whatever travesty he is experiencing.   Giving the ending away in this fashion does nothing to diminish the impact of the violence and horror that surrounds Deng, however.  His life has been one of surprising hardship, and it is only the passage that matters.

What Is the What?
Dave Eggers
Paperback: 560 pages
Vintage Publishing

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Filed under Book Shelf, Print