Monday, January 29, 2007

What is the What by Dave Eggers

I like how Dave Eggers works at making writing a force for good and at making it hip for young and old, and I even like the intentions of this novel--to tell the story of someone who wouldn't write it on his own. But I was continually jarred by the idea intrinsic in the subtitle: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. At first, I actually thought it was one of those novels where the writer fictionalizes a writer and a publishing scenario etc (Lolita, Edwin Mullhouse, many others...). But by all appearances, it's not. Dave Eggers actually did lengthy interviews with Valentino Achack Deng, a real "Lost Boy of Sudan," and then wrote down his story, novelizing where he felt it needed novelizing, but claiming to stay pretty close to the story. And there isn't anything inherently wrong with that. But it was an odd sensation to have the Eggers' voice, which is distinct and apparently something he can't or won't go without, in the mouth of someone else. I never quite got over it. Perhaps what I was looking for was more novelizing. The narration goes between the troubles Deng has now that he's been settled in the US and the troubles he had in the Sudan--and there's no denying the guy has had a lot of very serious troubles. But the events that engaged me the most were actually the ones in the US, since those involved the most developed characters (a lot of other people come and go very quickly), yet those seemed to serve mainly as a frame for the time in the Sudan. I think one problem was the characterization of Deng is pretty limited, you get the facts, and some of his emotions, but Eggers seems reluctant to give him more of a point of view in most situations. Perhaps because the events are so dramatic that point of view seemed unnecessary (not true!) or perhaps because he was reluctant to invent the inside of Deng's head. It's the trouble with trying to serve nonfiction and fiction simultaneously. If Eggers had written his own first person nonfiction account of obtaining Deng's story (like Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down) perhaps it would have held my attention more.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I heard Eggers talk about the book on NPR--as much as I loved "Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" did seem like the strength of that was that it was his OWN story, in his own voice. Hearing him on the radio with the Sudanese man...was jarring. It did make me wonder if it wasn't Eggers if people might be more taken aback. He's definitely an impressive media-maker and an even more impressive writer...but it seems pompous, I guess.