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.)
"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
"A moving, frightening, improbably beautiful book." Time
"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
"Eggers proves himself a master of narrative, both for what he has written here and for his choice of subject." People
"What Is the What does what a novel does best...make us understand the deeper truths of another human's experience." Booklist
"Nothing short of genius." New York Magazine
"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
"I have been interacting with the Lost Boys since the late 1980s, from the time they were first displaced in Sudan to their arrival in the United States. I thought I had heard and seen it all. But reading Valentino's story has touched emotions in me I didn't even know I had. Dave Eggers tells the story of Sudan through Valentino's eyes, but he also elucidates the best and worst of our common humanity." John Prendergast, International Crisis Group
"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
In a sprawling and epic novel, Dave Eggers illuminates the history of the civil war in Sudan through the eyes of a young boy, Valentino Achak Deng. What is the What tells the story of Valentino and another boy, both caught in the Sudanese civil war. One, at seven, is too young to know what's happening; the other, at ten, is old enough to fight for the rebel army. The two struggle through the brutal war, enduring the surreal world their country has become. In many ways a complete departure from the author's previous works, this book is a straightforward and unflinching portrayal of the madness of war; yet it is also full of unexpected humor and adventure. What Is the What is heartrending and astonishing, filled with adventure, suspense, tragedy and, finally, triumph.
In a heartrending and astonishing novel, Eggers illuminates the history of the civil war in Sudan through the eyes of Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee now living in the United States.
In a heartrending and astonishing novel, Eggers illuminates the history of the civil war in Sudan through the eyes of Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee now living in the United States. We follow his life as he's driven from his home as a boy and walks, with thousands of orphans, to Ethiopia, where he finds safety for a time. Valentino's travels, truly Biblical in scope, bring him in contact with government soldiers, janjaweed-like militias, liberation rebels, hyenas and lions, disease and starvation and a string of unexpected romances. Ultimately, Valentino finds safety in Kenya and, just after the millennium, is finally resettled in the United States, from where this novel is narrated. In this book, written with expansive humanity and surprising humor, we come to understand the nature of the conflicts in Sudan, the refugee experience in America, the dreams of the Dinka people, and the challenge one indomitable man faces in a world collapsing around him.
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.
Review A Day
"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