Sunday, April 01, 2007

What is the What, by Dave Eggers

While I was waiting for this book to get off the hold list at the library, I actually went to a function in Cambridge with Dave Eggers, Samantha Power, and Valentino Achak Deng. Deng is Sudanese, one of many boys that were displaced by the civil war in the 90s, ended up in refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia, and were finally allowed to immigrate to America where they were collectively nicknamed the Lost Boys. The book is the semi-fictionalized story of his life.

Hearing Deng speak added a dimension to this book, I think, that it might otherwise have missed. He has a quality about him that I can only describe as saintly. Power and Eggers both seemed like good, smart people and they said the things about Sudan that one would expect good, smart people to say. Valentino didn't say anything particularly incisive and had little in the way of geopolitical advice; all he appeared to have was a boundless and possibly unjustified belief in human kindness. At one point, for example, he mentioned that he hoped that various people would read this book - the people in Atlanta that robbed him and beat him unconscious, for example - and hoped that they would realize that they should not treat people this way. And this did not seem at all affected or self-consciously generous; he both realized that it was unlikely and still hoped that it might happen. It was easy to see, at the end of the evening, why so many people have gravitated to him and trusted him as a leader, and also why he has been such a magnet for misfortune, especially in America, since unusually decent people seem to attract cruelty.

Anyway, I enjoyed the book a lot. I can't think of the last novel that I read so quickly without any boredom or fatigue. Even though the book's prose did not remind me of Deng's voice as he spoke at the assembly, it was completely convincing while I was reading. The book also reintroduces something that I think has been missing from the modern novel for a long time: reticence. Sudanese people are not comfortable talking openly about sex or describing their various desires, and Eggers respects this. One of my favorite lines in the book is a description of a woman that Deng is in love with; he calls her "a dramatically shaped woman" - and then he clumsily adds something else like "a woman in every particular." Anyway, reticence gives this novel its feeling of genuineness and a lot of its charm, and it does have charm; there is joy and humor as well as massacres and death. And it is thankfully the story of individuals instead of an attempt to create a sort of representative man for all the Sudanese who survived the war and came to America.

There was a single rhetorical flourish that I disliked but I don't think the book could do without. The novel opens with people breaking into Valentino's apartment and tying him up; the entire novel, in fact, deals with the day and half after this takes place - getting loose, going to the hospital, going to work. And the entire story of his life is told in sections during this awful day. The transitions are created with Deng mentally addressing the people around him and telling them his story: first a little boy who has been sent to guard him while he's tied up, then a nurse in the hospital, and various people at the health club where he works.

I could see why it was an effective tool for transitions - and at the end, the larger point that was made by telling the story this way - but it seemed contrived to me and not quite right for the character. There was something self-conscious about it. But I also noticed that the novel's energy flagged when there was no one to address - for example, the very beginning, and an 100-page stretch between the hospital and Deng's work - so maybe it was something that Eggers needed for the book to click somehow.

There are perhaps other flaws, but they are not worth going on about - this is an honest well-written novel and it deserves the audience that it appears to have found. It is worth rereading and accomplishes the central task of realistic art: the enlargement of sympathies. A lot of people at the assembly expressed concerns about what was real and what was not in this semi-fictionalized novel; I had some too at the beginning and I don't think it's a false problem, but my concerns disappeared while I was reading. I could sense occasionally that Eggers had probably collapsed certain material into the book - one of the boys that had been kidnapped and enslaved, for example, might not actually have been Deng's friend from the village - but none of it felt like real exaggeration or embellishment (that is, falsehood) and I never had significant reservations.

No comments: