By September 4, 2008 0 Comments Read More →

WHAT IS THE WHAT

This week my book group discussed Dave Eggers’ novel What is the WhatEggers’ book is more than a novel, it is the fictionalized autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a Lost Boy of Sudan.

Valentino and Eggers decided to make the book a novel due to the fact that Deng was so young when the war started, that some of his memories needed fleshing out, and Eggers wanted to provide some broad strokes to fill in the reader’s understanding of the history of the Sudan and its conflicts.  What Eggers and Deng create together is a work of art, a searing, seamless voice leading us into a harrowing tale of survival.  But as the book is quick to point out, it was not just in the Sudan or in the refugee camps that Valentino had to fight to survive, but in America, too.

Our conversation began with talking about Eggers and his groundbreaking memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusSome readers had loved that book and others had found it a work of bloated ego.  But everyone who had read Eggers before noted how different this book was, how submerged Eggers and his ego was in What is the What.  In other words, whatever you had felt about Eggers as author before, a reader could come to this book with a clean slate. 

My group talked about Valentino the boy and the man, Valentino the narrator and what we found appealing about him.  The words just tumbled out: lack of self-pity, quality of innocence and naivete, moral center, connects genuinely in relationships, kept hope, and is trusting (a blessing and a curse).

We talked about how much smell plays a part in the memories that Valentino shares.  This made the story all the more real.  We talked about scent and memory and how it touches a deep and basic part of us as human beings and how well Valentino expressed that in his storytelling. 

We talked about the narrative device in the story, in which Valentino ‘tells’ his story to different people he encounters during the day.  Someone mentioned The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid as another recent book that also uses this approach.

Because survival is such a central theme in the book, readers reflected on Holocaust narratives or friends that had survived the Holocaust and how, though these experiences are very different, survival stories have many similar elements.  One book group member found it interesting that in a situation where only the fittest survive, someone as nice and trusting and Valentino did make it, because so often such experiences toughen you up, and in fact the more ‘soft’ or trusting often do not survive.  This reader likened Valentino’s character in some ways to that of Blanche DuBois, relying on the kindness of strangers.  I thought this was a great comment, and then we talked about how in refugee camps the displaced must rely on the kindness of strangers–how else would they survive?

Finally, we asked ourselves whether this book would have been as successful or powerful if it had just been a novel, not based on a real person’s life.  The answer we came up with is no.  What is the What is all the more impactful for being so real.

I walked away from my group’s discussion wanting to run out and personally thank Dave Eggers.  Thank you, Dave Eggers, for helping Valentino tell his story.  Thank you, Dave Eggers, for making sure that all proceeds from this book go to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation.  Thank you, Dave Eggers, for giving my book group a fantastic book to read, think about and discuss. 

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About the Author:

Misha Stone is a readers' advisory librarian with The Seattle Public Library. Follow her on Twitter at @ahsimlibrarian.

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