Summer Reading: Dave Eggers's What Is the What

After a couple of months, I have finally finished Dave Eggers’s most recent novel, What Is the What. It’s an incredibly relentless novel, in length, subject matter, and narrative voice, and at times I found it quite difficult to approach.

I have loved Eggers’s writing for a long time, and expected to love this book just as much as I had loved A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, You Shall Know Our Velocity, or any of his great short fiction.   What I found when I cracked this novel, however, was very different.  Here, Eggers still experiments with form, blending fiction and non-fiction gracefully, but his usual voice and cadence have been replaced with a sort of ventriloquizing of the voice of Valentino Achak Deng, who narrates (but does not write) this “autobiography.”

I found this voice a bit abrasive, at first — perhaps due to the blunt, static, almost Hemingway-like syntax, and perhaps due to the fact that it stood in place of the more lyrical, denser, more complex syntax I have come to expect from Eggers — and it stood in the way of my approaching the novel for quite some time.  By the time I was half-way through the 500-page book, I was still unsure where Eggers was going, and, on a more basic level, whether I was even enjoying it.

I knew the book had been widely praised: so many readers claimed it as a giant leap forward for Eggers, away from the “too-clever” postmodern self-consciousness of his earlier books and into a deeper and richer subject matter.  I suspected this had a lot to do with the book’s focus on genocide in Sudan, and the idea that Eggers was bringing more attention to that international crisis.  A valid and noble thing, to be sure, but was the book really all that good?

I continued slogging through, feeling as if I were being beaten down by the unrelenting hammer of Eggers-as-Valentino’s narrative voice, only occasionally catching my breath at particularly graceful moments, such as this one, where Valentino describes the experience of seeing his fellow Lost Boys die along the journey:

By the next afternoon, we had seen eight more dead boys along the path, those from groups ahead of ours, and we added three more of our own.  On that day and in the days to come, when a boy was going to die, he would first stop talking.  His throat would be too dry and to speak required too much energy.  Then his eyes would sink deeper, circled in ever-darker shadows.  He would no longer answer to his name.  His walk would slow, his feet shuffling, and he would be among the boys who would rest longer.  Eventually a dying boy would find a tree, and he would sit against the tree and fall asleep.  When his head touched the tree, the life in him would fall away and his flesh would return to the earth.

The persistent repetition of “would” must surely echo Valentino’s own storytelling style, but the progression of the boys’ symptoms from voicelessness to dissociation from their names to the falling-away of life itself reflects a more artful influence.  The final image is also one of the few figural/metaphoric moments from this unusually literal story. Moments like these were timely reminders that I was reading a Dave Eggers novel, not a strict autobiography. Eggers also uses an interesting device throughout the book, having present-day Valentino address parts of his story to the people he encounters throughout the day, which serves to tie the two timelines together in an interesting way and to reinforce the story’s genesis in an oral history, one told to Eggers by Valentino over the several years they collaborated on this book.

I have always been enamored with formal experimentation and stylistic devices, so these elements were helpful in keeping my interest throughout the long (long, very long, relentless) novel.  It’s good that they were, too, otherwise I might never have made it to the end.  By the last hundred pages or so, I had finally become invested in the story being told, and I’ll admit that for the last fifty or so pages, I was squinting through my tears as I neared the novel’s end.

While I can’t add to the universal, univocal raves for this book that I’ve seen elsewhere, I can say that it does truly reward persistence.  Valentino’s voice eventually becomes familiar and inextricable, and its moments of brilliance glow a bit brighter as the book moves closer to the finish.  It’s no Heartbreaking Work, but it manages to be heartbreaking enough anyway.


  1. I am having that same kind of problem with Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. I desperately want to like the book, I do, but something about the narrator’s voice and the somewhat sympathetic presentation given to the recently post-slavery south really puts me off.

    Gurganus also spends a lot of time with Lucy talking about her hoo-ha. I don’t know if his goal is exposing the then common practice of marital rape and the way in which young women were not really taught anything about screwin’ or what, but every five pages it’s “Oh, and that Mr. Marsden made me do him after telling that story!” I have, frankly, pretty much had enough of it.

    I am increasingly convinced that the old south is basically a template for everything that can be wrong with the universe, and this book is doing nothing to really dissuade me from that notion.


  2. Sometimes I think reading a book you dislike makes you more thoughtful, since you are constantly going over the reasons why it isn’t working for you. That happened to me on this one, but then I wound up liking it after all.


  3. I think there’s something to that. I’m finally getting to the point where I can differentiate between things I don’t happen to like and things that aren’t good. I think Oldest Living Confederate Widow falls more into the first category. I really don’t like purposeful misspellings that are supposed to give me a sense of the narrator’s voice, and Gurganus does a lot of that. “Onct”? WTF?


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