Tuesday, March 4, 2008

What is the What

Title: What is the What
Author: Dave Eggers
Rating: 4/5
Pages: 535

Every book should be given a drool factor: the number of times that you catch yourself drooling onto the page because you're so lost in what you're reading. I give What is the What a drool factor of about 3.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the narrative approach. Consider the subtitle: "The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. A Novel by Dave Eggers." Essentially, Eggers spent so much time sitting and talking with Deng that he was able to actually climb inside Deng's head. Deng is a former Lost Boy of Sudan: a survivor of that country's shocking civil war which turned thousands of young children into wandering bands of orphans. Eggers wrote the book from Deng's perspective, wisely labeling his a work a novel even though it is clear that almost everything in the book actually happened. The narrative flow is chopped into two halves and then sliced up and mixed so that we travel back and forth between Deng's harrowing journey on foot across Sudan toward a refugee camp in Ethiopia, and his experience in the United States as a grown man (many of the Lost Boys were sponsored by Americans and brought to our country).

For me, the book's strong drool factor is a result of the slices that recount Deng's childhood journey. It was impossible for me not to feel horror and terror as I read about he and his fellow refugees, most of them not yet teenagers, attempting to survive and find their way to safety amidst murderous soldiers, disease, famine and even hungry lions.

These slices of the book, which Eggers writes in a primal and strangely humorous way, are interrupted by the slices that recount Deng's attempts to get into college, find a job and deal with his girlfriend in the United States. True, I am guilty of trivializing here
. Deng certainly doesn't find an easy life in America, and Eggers frames this part of the story in a very unique way that would spoil the book for you if I revealed it. But I am giving What is the What an overall rating of 4 because I feel that the American slices of the book pale in comparison to the African slices. Every time the narrative switched to the United States, I found myself racing to get back to Africa to find out what would happen next to Deng and his friends.

The bottom line is that What is the What is almost two different books and may have been better off as such. But the uniqueness of Eggers' approach, the brilliance of his writing and Deng's truly amazing story still make it well worth reading.

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