Synopses & Reviews
What Is the What
is an epic novel about the lives of two boys during the Sudanese civil war. For those who think they know about the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan, this novel will be an eye-opener. And if you think you know the work of Dave Eggers, this is in many ways a complete departure: it's straightforward and unflinching, and yet full of unexpected humor and adventure amid the madness of war.
Eggers has been working on the book for four years now, deeply entrenched in the community of Sudanese refugees in the U.S., and in 2003 went to southern Sudan with a refugee named Valentino Achak Deng. During that trip, Deng was reunited with the family he hadn't seen in 17 years. What Is the What is a book about the lives of these two boys one, at seven, too young to know what's happening to his country; the other, at ten, old enough to fight for the rebel army.
Through it all, the two boys persevere through one of the most brutal civil wars the world has ever known, finding themselves in one unbelievable, utterly surreal situation after another. What Is the What is thought-provoking, exciting, and repeatedly heartbreaking.
"Valentino Achak Deng, real-life hero of this engrossing epic, was a refugee from the Sudanese civil war-the bloodbath before the current Darfur bloodbath-of the 1980s and 90s. In this fictionalized memoir, Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) makes him an icon of globalization. Separated from his family when Arab militia destroy his village, Valentino joins thousands of other 'Lost Boys,' beset by starvation, thirst and man-eating lions on their march to squalid refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, where Valentino pieces together a new life. He eventually reaches America, but finds his quest for safety, community and fulfillment in many ways even more difficult there than in the camps: he recalls, for instance, being robbed, beaten and held captive in his Atlanta apartment. Eggers's limpid prose gives Valentino an unaffected, compelling voice and makes his narrative by turns harrowing, funny, bleak and lyrical. The result is a horrific account of the Sudanese tragedy, but also an emblematic saga of modernity of the search for home and self in a world of unending upheaval." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Though [Eggers] has labeled this account a novel, the book is closely based on the experiences of the real-life Valentino Deng, and it reads and should be savored as a powerful, if occasionally didactic, piece of oral history. (Grade: B+)" Entertainment Weekly
"Dave Eggers has done something remarkable with this book. He has managed to cross many barriers both real and artificial to tell the story of one man's tragedy and triumph in a way that emphasizes his simple humanity above the drama of his terrible situation. It is a book that shows there is no reason why geographical and cultural divides should prevent us from attempting to understand each other as citizens of this world." Uzodinma Iweala, author of Beasts of No Nation
"I cannot recall the last time I was this moved by a novel. What Is the What is that rare book that truly deserves the overused and scarcely warranted moniker of 'sprawling epic.' Told with humor, humanity, and bottomless compassion for his subject, one Valentino Achak Deng, Eggers shows us the hardships, disillusions, and hopes of the long suffering people of southern Sudan. This is the story of one boy's astonishing capacity to endure atrocity after atrocity and yet refuse to abandon decency, kindness, and hope for home and acceptance. It is impossible to read this book and not be humbled, enlightened, transformed. I believe I will never forget Valentino Achak Deng." Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner
"What Is the What is a novel that possesses the best qualities of a documentary film: the conviction of truthfulness, and the constant reminder of the arbitrariness of fate, for worse and for better. By setting his story of African annihilation and survival as a story of American immigration, Eggers ensures that it belongs to us all, as it must." Philip Gourevitch, author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda
"Eggers's generous spirit and seemingly inexhaustible energy some of the qualities that made his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, so popular transform Valentino and the people he met on his journey into characters in a book with the imaginative sweep, the scope and, above all, the emotional power of an epic." Francine Prose, New York Times Book Review
"Nothing short of genius." New York Magazine
"What Is the What does what a novel does best...make us understand the deeper truths of another human's experience." Booklist
"Eggers proves himself a master of narrative, both for what he has written here and for his choice of subject." People
"A moving, frightening, improbably beautiful book." Time
"A startling act of literary ventriloquism that...remind[s] us just how eloquently the author can write about loss and mortality and sorrow. A devastating and humane account of one man's survival against terrible odds..." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"The eerie, slightly sickening quality about What Is the What
is that Deng's personhood has been displaced by someone else's style and sensibility by someone else's story. Deng survived his would-be killers in the Sudan, only to have his identity erased here." Lee Siegel, The New Republic
(read the entire New Republic review
New York Times
New York Times Bestseller
What Is the What is the epic novel based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng who, along with thousands of other children — the so-called Lost Boys — was forced to leave his village in Sudan at the age of seven and trek hundreds of miles by foot, pursued by militias, government bombers, and wild animals, crossing the deserts of three countries to find freedom. When he finally is resettled in the United States, he finds a life full of promise, but also heartache and myriad new challenges. Moving, suspenseful, and unexpectedly funny, What Is the What is an astonishing novel that illuminates the lives of millions through one extraordinary man.
About the Author
Dave Eggers grew up close to Chicago and attended the University of Illinois. He is the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
, You Shall Know Our Velocity!
, and How We Are Hungry
. In 1998, he founded McSweeney's, an independent publishing house located in San Francisco that publishes books, a quarterly literary journal, the Believer
, and a daily humor website. In 2002, Eggers opened 826 Valencia, a writing lab for young people located in the Mission District of San Francisco, where he teaches writing to high-school students and runs a summer publishing camp; there is now also an 826NYC in Brooklyn. With the help of his workshop students, Eggers edits a collection of fiction, essays, and journalism called The Best American Nonrequired Reading
His fiction has appeared in Zoetrope, Punk Planet, and the New Yorker. He has recently written introductions to new editions of books by Edward Wallant, John Cheever, and Mark Twain, and is currently working on the biography of Valentino Ashak Deng, a refugee from the Sudan now living in Atlanta. Excerpts from this book have appeared in the Believer. A serial novel about electoral politics recently appeared on Salon. He currently has a weekly short-short-story section in the U.K. Guardian newspaper.
He writes regularly about art and music for magazines, including Frieze, Blind Spot, Parkett, and Spin, and his design work has been featured in many periodicals, including Print and Eye, and annuals, including Area: 100 Graphic Designers (Phaidon, 2003) and Reinventing the Wheel (2002, Princeton Architectural Press). In 2003, his designs for McSweeney's were featured in the National Design Triennial at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and in the California Design Biennial.
Reading Group Guide
“Told with humor, humanity, and bottomless compassion for his subject. . . . It is impossible to read this book and not be humbled, enlightened, transformed.”
—Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Dave Eggers’s brilliant new novel, What Is the What, which Francine Prose in The New York Times Book Review hailed as “an eloquent testimony to the power of storytelling” and “an extraordinary work of witness, and of art.”
1. In what ways can What Is the What be understood as a hero’s journey? What features does it share with classic works like Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid or more modern works like Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? What are the most significant features of Valentino’s journey? In what ways is Valentino’s story both unique and universal?
2. When he is in the United States, Valentino says that he wants everyone to hear his stories. “Written words are rare in small villages like mine, and it is my right and obligation to send my stories into the world, even if silently, even if utterly powerless” [p. 29]. Through Eggers, Valentino has found a way to send his stories into the world. Are they powerless to alter the suffering he and his fellow Sudanese have endured? What powers do they possess?
3. What are Valentino’s most appealing qualities—as a character in his own story and as a narrator of that story?
4. What is the significance of Valentino addressing his stories to people who aren’t listening—to Michael, TV Boy, to Julian, the intake person at the hospital, to members of his gym, etc.? Why would Eggers make this narrative choice?
5. Why is a personal story—Valentino’s story—of the violence and oppression in Sudan more valuable than any purely historical account could be? What emotions does Valentino’s story arouse that a more objective treatment could not?
6. What are Valentino’s most harrowing experiences? In what ways do they shape his character? What enables him to survive these ordeals and even excel in the refugee camps?
7. What is the “what” of the “What Is the What” story? Does the novel point to a solution to this riddle?
8. At the end of the novel, Valentino addresses the reader directly: “All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist” [p. 535]. Why would Eggers and Valentino choose to end the novel in this way? In what ways have Westerners pretended that people like Valentino don’t exist? What is Valentino saying here about the power of the imagination and the power of storytelling?
9. In what ways does What Is the What illuminate the genocide that is still ongoing in Sudan?
10. Explore the irony of Valentino escaping from Africa and the terrible violence there to being beaten and robbed in Atlanta. Why does Valentino feel, after he has been victimized—and after his experience with the police and the hospital—that he doesn’t actually exist?
11. Why does Valentino describe America as “a miserable and glorious place”? [p. 351]. How are his struggles in the United States both different from and similar to his struggles in Africa?
12. Valentino says that “the civil war became, to the world at large, too confusing to decipher, a mess of tribal conflicts with no clear heroes and villains” [p. 349]. To what degree is it true that there were no clear heroes and villains, no clear victims and oppressors, in Sudan’s civil war as Valentino describes it? In what ways do SPLA forces behave just as brutally as the murahaleen and government forces they are fighting?
13. When the Lost Boys are chased from a village by the SPLA, Valentino realizes that “there were castes within the displaced. And we occupied the lowest rung on the ladder. We were utterly dispensable to all—to the government, to the murahaleen, to the rebels, to the better-situated refugees” [p. 225]. What essential problem does Valentino’s realization reveal? Is this desire for hierarchy intrinsic to human nature or is it always historically conditioned?
14. What Is the What is about war and displacement and the struggle to survive. In what ways is it also a novel about friendship, love, and family? What moments of compassion stand out in the novel? What are Valentino’s most positive relationships?