What Is the What
by Dave Eggers
The Niceness Racket
A review by Lee Siegel
As I was trying to make sense of Dave Eggers's strange new book, I came across a piece of writing that captured the general cultural atmosphere in which Eggers's book took shape. Not long ago, in the course of reviewing Martin Amis's novel House of Meetings, most of which takes place in a Soviet gulag, Joan Acocella bestowed on readers of The New Yorker this illumination: "Amis, like Primo Levi, his great predecessor in prison-camp memorialization, is able to calculate degrees of anguish."
Amis's great predecessor in prison-camp memorialization! If you had the sublime luck to be sitting in your dentist's waiting room when you read that, you could have tried faking a sudden painful abscess and begging the nurse to infuse you with a triple dose of Demerol. That way, you might have lost consciousness before Acocella's sentence became stored in your memory cells. Her remark was shockingly and multivalently out of kilter. "Predecessor" implies a position and function kindred to those of the eventual "successor," and Amis is planets away from both Levi's experience and his evocative power. Auschwitz was not a "prison camp," it was a death camp. Levi's testimony cannot adequately be described with the bland "memorialization". And real writers, imaginative writers, writers such as Levi, do not "calculate" anything, let alone incalculable anguish.
You couldn't blame Amis for Acocella's insentience, but you couldn't blame Acocella for banging her head against Amis's novel until she apparently lost consciousness. The generation of people who survived the Holocaust and Stalin's vast network of camps is disappearing, but the number of novels about modern genocide has increased, and most of them are written by people who have no firsthand experience of their subject on which to draw. This presents a curious problem. Bearing witness, even in fictionalizing form, to extreme historical events that you have experienced is one thing. It is quite a different thing to try to recreate extreme historical events that you have not experienced, and then to try to imagine what it would be like to think and feel your way through them. This is hardly an illegitimate endeavor -- the imagination has an obligation to wrestle with even the most unimaginable experiences; but it is an intensely demanding endeavor, with moral and aesthetic pitfalls all around.
Dave Eggers told The Washington Post that before deciding to himself write the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng -- a Sudanese refugee and survivor of genocide who came to this country in 2001 as one of the famous group of 3,800 "lost boys" -- he had
set out to write a conventional biography. But he kept getting stuck. "I didn't know how to do it," he says. "I didn't want my own voice in there." Despairing, he was ready to give the whole thing up. Then it occurred to him that "all the books that we remember about war and about the biggest events of the 20th century are novels." Think of The Naked and the Dead, Catch-22
"and all Hemingway's stuff."
But Mailer, Heller, and Hemingway all fought in the wars about which they wrote. It is difficult enough to write good fiction about war without having been in one -- Stephen Crane and Ian McEwan are the only writers I can think of who succeeded in doing so. And the fear, dread, terror, panic, and tedium of war are at least special cases of universal feelings that are vicariously inhabitable. But a concentration camp is a deformed universe unto itself, and it manufactures new feelings, or new deaths of feeling. How can the novelist who takes up that terrible subject inhabit emotions that few people have ever experienced? And why do so many who are not up to the task try? For the result usually is, as with Amis's misbegotten novel, a specious writerly authority, a heightened literariness that is contrived to compensate for an experiential or intellectual incompetence -- artificial, self-satisfied books in which style is left to do the work of true feeling and perception.
In the case of What Is the What, Eggers has made the very daring decision not only to fictionalize about extreme events that he never experienced, but to base his fictions of genocide on the true story of a real, living person. This might be his way of addressing precisely his lack of experience. But then why go to all the narrative trouble? Eggers could just as well have transcribed Deng's extraordinary story without fictionalizing it. The unadorned story, the true story humbly recorded and presented, would not have been lacking in force. 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.
The question of what motivates someone to fictionalize enormities that he has not experienced -- rather than fictionalizing the infinite number of experiences within the reach of his imagination -- is a fine subject for critics and psychologists. When the experiment succeeds, it quiets any skepticism about its motives. Directly or indirectly, poetically or plainly, calmly or angrily, cunningly or earnestly, if a writer can find a way to represent evil, his motivation is about as relevant to his achievement as his blood type. Form doesn't matter much, either. Spiegelman's Maus is as successful at fulfilling its aim as Lanzmann's Shoah. The graphic novel and the film might exert their effects on very different levels, but each work has an honorable, humane, and artistically original purpose. And each work is true to its purpose -- no more, no less.
While Eggers inhabits Deng's life in What Is the What, it is Deng himself, ironically, who tells us in a preface what the book's purpose is. He says that he is the one writing the preface, anyway: "This book was born out of the desire on the part of myself and the author to reach out to others to help them understand the atrocities many successive governments of Sudan committed before and during the civil war....Even when my hours were darkest, I believed that some day I could share my experiences with readers, so as to prevent the same horrors from repeating themselves." The thing is, the same horrors are repeating themselves even now. In fact, the horrors never came to an end. And for people who know Dave Eggers's writing, Deng's heartbreakingly affirmative declaration of the possibility of closure -- of the possibility of a happy ending -- is strangely familiar.
If Eggers, the sincere young father of post-postmodern half-irony -- call it sincerony -- wants to raise public awareness of the genocide in Darfur, he is not alone; and it is an admirable undertaking. Eggers, in fact, is a wholly admirable figure in American cultural life. With the money he made from his hugely successful first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius -- itself a fictionalized memoir -- he started a literary magazine and publishing house called McSweeney's, and later another literary magazine called the Believer, both of which are committed to publishing the work of writers just starting out. He has established free writing workshops -- literacy centers, really -- for young people throughout the country.
Eggers could have published What Is the What with a big-time publisher and gotten a considerable advance. Instead, he published it with McSweeney's and pledged to give the profits to various agencies devoted to relieving the suffering in Darfur. I fully expect that he will do so. I cannot think of many figures in our culture who have gone their own way, against the grain, to the extent that Eggers has. If he has flourished in the mainstream even as he has continued his eccentric dissent from the mainstream, well, he is getting what he deserves.
Dave Eggers the person is all right with me. Dave Eggers the writer is another story. The very distinction, you feel, would exasperate Eggers, since he has staked his creative life on an identification of decent living with good writing. The conviction that good-intentioned people necessarily make good art is what lies behind the hectic innovative blurring of fact and fiction in Eggers's work, and in the work of the writers he publishes.
If there is a McSweeney's sensibility, it is summed up in the epigraph to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: "First of all: I am tired. I am true of heart! And also: You are tired. You are true of heart!" Art being, among other things, the inner account of what happens when deliberately or unwittingly untrue hearts collide, the McSweeney's style, and Eggers's style, can read like Peanuts for adults who are reluctant to grow up. In fact, Eggers prides himself on dividing his fictional and semi-fictional worlds between overgrown children -- the true of heart -- and adults, the latter almost always helpless victims or boorish types. Mostly, though, grown-ups do not exist in Eggers's writing. His world is populated by young, childlike people mostly in their twenties, for whom the more mature world -- as in Peanuts -- resembles the shadows flickering on the wall of Plato's infamous cave. (One of the most striking things about Eggers's work -- and that of many of the writers he has influenced -- is that you would be hard-pressed to find in it a description of the sexual act, if you can find one at all. This makes sense, because sex is a childlike act the first experience of which results in growing up.)
The Eggers/McSweeney's true-heartedness consists of a permanent aching sadness. It can be due to heartless parents, as in Sean Wilsey's memoir, Oh the Glory of It All. Or it can be the result of parents who have died, as in A Heartbreaking Work. In that locus classicus of the McSweeney's idiom, Eggers tells the fictionalized actual story of how he raised his little brother all by himself after both their parents died of cancer within weeks of each other. All McSweeney's children are either spiritual or literal orphans. Eggers's own formative tragedy inflects each of their stories in some hidden, imperceptible way. It is as though he were the founder of a religion. A lot of the writers who appear in McSweeney's and the Believer strive not just to emulate Eggers's style, but also to assimilate Eggers's subjects.
The essence of Eggers's fictionalized memoir lies in the words spread across the book's cover: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The extravagantly self-mocking title asks to be indulged as an innocent egotism born of great pain. At the same time, having derided its artistic ambition into a nullity, the title also asks that this modest, self-mocking decency be celebrated as a kind of art. Children possess the same effective instinct for deprecating what they truly (tearfully) want. The book's dynamic is almost dialectical: Eggers asserts his sadness, deflects it with trivializing ironic digressions, and then makes this defensive ironizing of pain into an irreproachable new aesthetic. And the whole thing is topped off by the coup-de-théâtre of generously acknowledging the manipulativeness of it all. In other words, you have to be in on the joke to get the pain, but you have to share the pain to be in on the joke. Then you can join the exclusive egalitarian club known as McSweeney's.
And since the joke is literary, and the pain is personal, and the two are intertwined, you cannot ever criticize a work of art without insulting somebody's life. If you do, you are "snarky." In the end, the McSweeneyites dislike the impersonal judgments of criticism because they reject the impersonal authority of art. So they keep beating art back with personal facts, and beating down with self-distancing, loquacious irony the ego that produced, with unacceptable autonomy, the work of art.
McSweeney's ethos of the personal nature of literary endeavor mirrors its aesthetic of mixing fact and fiction. Or, I should say, self-consciously mixing fact and fiction, because the two are never comfortably integrated in Eggers's work. In his preface to Heartbreaking's paperback edition, Eggers declares that "this is not, actually, a work of pure nonfiction. Many parts have been fictionalized in varying degrees, for various purposes." But he didn't have to tell us that. As he also writes in the preface -- with disarming candor -- the book is full of characters who "break out of their narrative time-space continuum to cloyingly talk about the book itself." Eggers is often reminding you of his artifice. It is as if he wanted you to believe that showing the seams between the real and the made-up were a further kind of decency, and thus a better type of art. He means his self-consciousness to be not so much a postmodern trick as a public service.
But what Eggers is really doing in his "mash-ups" of fact and fiction is a lot more significant. By refusing entirely to integrate the real and the imaginary into either fiction or non-fiction -- by insisting on the made-upness of it all, while still presenting it as something that really happened -- he is giving fantasy the status of actuality. Wandering among his facts, his fictions are more like daydreams than acts of "fictionalizing." But he presents them, with a kind of saintly insouciance, as facts. For Eggers, reality is continuous with whatever you want, mentally, to do to reality. For all of their effusions about the exalted wonderfulness of art, the McSweeneyites, like Eggers, do not transform reality, the way artists do. They juggle with it, the way daydreamers and entertainers do.
This is not to say that A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius doesn't have a raw, magnetic, un-expected power, despite its overcooked self-consciousness. Eggers is affectingly true to his acheful, winking, self-dramatizing, self-distancing, sinceronic purposes. But in What Is the What, he is not true to Valentino Achak Deng's.
The Washington Post's article went on
to explain Eggers's project in What Is
More important, think of the ways
fictionalizing Deng's story could solve narrative problems. By labeling the book a novel, Eggers says, he freed himself to re-create conversations, streamline complex relationships, add relevant detail and manipulate time and space in helpful ways -- all while maintaining the essential truthfulness of the storytelling.
A Heartbreaking Work struck a chord in many readers because it captured the shuffled planes of reality in our entertainment culture of high-tech, multi-dimensional representation. (A good part of the book has Eggers being interviewed by a producer for the proto-reality show The Real World.) And it dramatized the fragility, and also the resilience, of selves trying to use all the thronging simulacra to protect themselves against life's afflictions. At times the book seemed written less by a single author named Dave Eggers than by a committee of people sitting in Eggers's brain, each person representing a different branch of popular culture. In A Heartbreaking Work, Eggers also "freed himself to re-create conversations, streamline complex relationships, add relevant detail and manipulate time and space in helpful ways." But he didn't do this to "solve narrative problems." He did it to solve the problem of a person in pain. That is why he never called that book a novel.
The assumptions of A Heartbreaking Work were that fantasy is co-extensive with reality, that making stuff up is fine if it preserves your trueheartedness. But these assumptions collapse in What Is the What -- or, rather, they are routed by its subject. The encounter between Eggers's small sly ethos and a genocidal historical event is a messy collision between childhood and reality; between whimsical, self-protective artistic license and a situation where life and death are balanced on the difference between truth and falsehood.
After all, the single most powerful argument against the mass murderers in Khartoum -- who blame the genocide on the rebels in Darfur and claim to be innocent of programmatic killing -- is the testimony of the victims of Khartoum. And the power of this argument rests on a belief in the sanctity of the truth; on the palpable presence of the human subject, on his memory and his trustworthiness and his authenticity; on the fact that this unique unduplicatable human individual, the one giving the testimony, survived. Indeed, it is the perpetrators of genocide who are the masters of freeing themselves "to re-create conversations, streamline complex relationships, add relevant detail and manipulate time and space" -- all in the most destructive ways imaginable.
Valentino Achak Deng, the man and the human argument, does not really exist in What Is the What. Eggers's voice is all over the book, in a way that it would never have been if he had stuck with his original intention to write a conventional biography. No one would ever confuse a biographer's voice, no matter how strong, with that of his subject. But Eggers has totally subsumed his Sudanese hero's voice into his own. Here is a passage from the final page of What Is the What:
I speak to these people, and I speak to you because I cannot help it. It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there. I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us. How blessed are we to have each other? I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words. I will fill today, tomorrow, every day until I am taken back to God.
And this is from the concluding pages of A Heartbreaking Work:
And we will be ready, at the end of every day, will be ready, will not say no to anything, will try to stay awake while everyone is sleeping, will not sleep, will make the shoes with the elves, will breathe deeply all the time, breathe in all the air full of glass and nails and blood, will breathe it and drink it, so rich, so when it comes we will not be angry, will be content, tired enough to go, gratefully, will shake hands with everyone, bye, bye, and then pack a bag, some snacks, and go to the volcano --
Somehow, the celebrated post-postmodern American writer and the impoverished Sudanese survivor both end their tales of radically different trauma with the same Yes! to life, the same thankfulness for every simple day, the same feeling of blessedness and gratitude, the same vow of wakefulness and strength, the same acceptance of death. As for Eggers protecting the voice of Valentino, who is not a native English speaker, from his own, consider this, from What Is the What:
The tape continues to break away from my skin. You, TV boy, see none of this. You seem unaware that there is a bound and gagged man on the floor, and that you are watching television in this man's home.
And this, from A Heartbreaking Work:
It's awkward, and I can't do both things while sitting on the arm of the couch and still be in a position to see the television. I try kneeling on the floor next to the couch. I reach over the arm of the couch to apply the ice with one hand, and pressure with the other.
Eggers might well protest that he novelized Deng's experiences because a dry, unadorned account of Deng's ordeal would read as just another piece of transcribed testimony, thousands of which you can find in the files of any human rights organization. After a while, they all begin to sound like one another, in a single mind-numbing blur of human sorrow. Such an arid telling would never attract readers in large numbers, and so would never succeed in making large numbers of people aware of the crisis in Sudan. This may be true -- except that few people are going to be galvanized into political or financial action by Eggers's telling of Deng's story. The self-conscious equivalence between decent living and good writing that makes Eggers and the McSweeneyites so oddly loath to portray human darkness turns Deng's experiences into a type of fairy tale.
The trouble in Deng's life begins when one day the rebels appear in his village. They demand that Deng's father, a modestly successful merchant, give them all his sugar. He refuses. One of the rebels becomes enraged:
And with that, without any sort of passion, he kicked my father in the face. The sound was dull, like a hand slapping the hide of a cow. He kicked him again and the sound was different this time. A crack, precisely like the breaking of a stick under one's knee.
At that moment, something in me snapped. I felt it, I could not be mistaken. It was as if there were a handful of taut strings inside me, holding me straight, holding together my brain and heart and legs, and at that moment, one of these strings, thin and delicate, snapped.
No less than three similes cushion the reader from the blow inflicted on the father and its effect on his young son. And they are not particularly fresh similes, either. The rhythm of the sentences is lovely; the subjunctive is absolutely correct. But the rhythm gives the ugly thing a prettifying framework, and the inappropriately formal subjunctive makes the violence even more remote.
Shortly after this, the entire passage is drained of whatever shocking inhumanity it might have had by the trademark
Eggers/McSweeney's trueheartedness -- the belief that the reader is too tired and pure of heart to be exposed to assholes. Having read of the crack in Deng's father's body, having been told that something essential in Deng snapped, you assume that the father is dead. You read about a helicopter attack (why does Eggers have Deng call them "great black crickets," when Deng has been to a modern school where he learned about modern life?) and about more terror, and because the father is not mentioned you go on thinking that he is dead. But then he suddenly appears, just days after being so brutally beaten, seemingly in good health, without any after-effects from the beating, and with no further reference to the heart-snapping crack. Nearly all of Eggers's descriptions of violence are just as evasively, gingerly, handled. It is like putting a protective hand over a child's eyes.
A reader could come away from this wrenching book without any urgent sense of human misery in Sudan at all. One of Eggers's major contrivances is to have Deng start telling his story while he is the victim of a hold-up in his Atlanta apartment. This goes on for something like two hundred pages. Even after he has been bound and gagged, he calmly addresses his captors in his mind and delivers long, exquisitely paced and elegantly written accounts of his ordeal in Sudan, and then in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. The effect of this absurd narrative trick is to perfect the unreality created by all the incongruous writerly figures of speech, and by the "decent" discretion about scenes of violence or sex. Incredibly, rape is carefully alluded to two or three times, but never described.
Eggers means well, he means well, he means well -- you cannot say it enough times. You do not need to convince me that he wrote the book for no other reason than to move people to action with Deng's story. But Eggers is a creature of the culture that he helped to create. He is a creature of the McSweeneyite confusion of good intentions with good art, and of its blithe elision -- partly pioneered by Eggers himself in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius -- of truth with untruth, prevarication with pretense.
The worst aspect of What Is the What -- the title refers to a Sudanese proverb warning against the unknown -- is that Deng's attitudes are tyrannically refracted through Eggers's reshaping of them. Deng does not represent himself. Eggers represents him. You never know whether the startling self-pity that Deng occasionally displays -- when two other boys are eaten by lions, Deng laments his unluckiness -- is his own or not. In Deng's own voice, these flashes from the underside of his ego might have been extenuated by irony or self-awareness. The same goes for Deng's hostile, suspicious, sometimes contemptuous attitudes toward American blacks. They might have been somehow vindicated in the full-throated revelation of his personality. Or maybe not. We will never know. In Eggers's hands, the survivor's voice does not survive.
Where is the dignity in that? How strange for one man to think that he could write the story of another man, a real living man who is perfectly capable of telling his story himself -- and then call it an autobiography. It is just one more instance of the accelerating mash-up of truth and falsehood in the culture, which mirrors and -- who knows? -- maybe even enables the manipulation of truth in politics.
And Eggers's book is also another unsettling thing. I never thought I would reach for this vocabulary, but What Is the What's innocent expropriation of another man's identity is a post-colonial arrogance -- the most socially acceptable instance of Orientalism you are likely to encounter. Perhaps this is the next stage of American memoir. Perhaps, having run out of marketable stories to tell about ourselves, we will now travel the world in search of desperate people willing to rent out their lives, the way indigent people in some desolate places give up their children. Perhaps we have picked our psyches clean, and now we need other people's stories the way we need other people's oil.
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