You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Niceness Racket

What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng

By Dave Eggers

(McSweeney's, 475 pp., $26)


As I was trying to make sense of Dave Eggers's strange new book, Icame across a piece of writing that captured the general culturalatmosphere in which Eggers's book took shape. Not long ago, in thecourse of reviewing Martin Amis's novel House of Meetings, most ofwhich takes place in a Soviet gulag, Joan Acocella bestowed onreaders of The New Yorker this illumination: "Amis, like PrimoLevi, his great predecessor in prison-camp memorialization, is ableto calculate degrees of anguish."

Amis's great predecessor in prison-camp memorialization! If you hadthe sublime luck to be sitting in your dentist's waiting room whenyou read that, you could have tried faking a sudden painful abscessand begging the nurse to infuse you with a triple dose of Demerol.That way, you might have lost consciousness before Acocella'ssentence became stored in your memory cells. Her remark wasshockingly and multivalently out of kilter. "Predecessor" implies aposition and function kindred to those of the eventual "successor,"and Amis is planets away from both Levi's experience and hisevocative power. Auschwitz was not a "prison camp," it was a deathcamp. Levi's testimony cannot adequately be described with thebland "memorialization". And real writers, imaginative writers,writers such as Levi, do not "calculate" anything, let aloneincalculable anguish.

You couldn't blame Amis for Acocella's insentience, but you couldn'tblame Acocella for banging her head against Amis's novel until sheapparently lost consciousness. The generation of people whosurvived the Holocaust and Stalin's vast network of camps isdisappearing, but the number of novels about modern genocide hasincreased, and most of them are written by people who have nofirsthand experience of their subject on which to draw. Thispresents a curious problem. Bearing witness, even in fictionalizingform, to extreme historical events that you have experienced is onething. It is quite a different thing to try to recreate extremehistorical events that you have not experienced, and then to try toimagine what it would be like to think and feel your way throughthem. This is hardly an illegitimate endeavor--the imagination hasan obligation to wrestle with even the most unimaginableexperiences; but it is an intensely demanding endeavor, with moraland aesthetic pitfalls all around.

Dave Eggers told The Washington Post that before deciding to himselfwrite the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng--a Sudanese refugeeand survivor of genocide who came to this country in 2001 as one ofthe famous group of 3,800 "lost boys"--he had

set out to write a conventional biography. But he kept gettingstuck. "I didn't know how to do it," he says. "I didn't want my ownvoice in there." Despairing, he was ready to give the whole thingup. Then it occurred to him that "all the books that we rememberabout 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 whichthey wrote. It is difficult enough to write good fiction about warwithout having been in one--Stephen Crane and Ian McEwan are theonly writers I can think of who succeeded in doing so. And thefear, dread, terror, panic, and tedium of war are at least specialcases of universal feelings that are vicariously inhabitable. But aconcentration camp is a deformed universe unto itself, and itmanufactures new feelings, or new deaths of feeling. How can thenovelist who takes up that terrible subject inhabit emotions thatfew people have ever experienced? And why do so many who are not upto the task try? For the result usually is, as with Amis'smisbegotten novel, a specious writerly authority, a heightenedliterariness that is contrived to compensate for an experiential orintellectual incompetence--artificial, self-satisfied books in whichstyle is left to do the work of true feeling and perception.

In the case of What Is the What, Eggers has made the very daringdecision not only to fictionalize about extreme events that henever experienced, but to base his fictions of genocide on the truestory of a real, living person. This might be his way of addressingprecisely his lack of experience. But then why go to all thenarrative trouble? Eggers could just as well have transcribedDeng's extraordinary story without fictionalizing it. The unadornedstory, the true story humbly recorded and presented, would not havebeen lacking in force. The eerie, slightly sickening quality aboutWhat Is the What is that Deng's personhood has been displaced bysomeone else's style and sensibility--by someone else's story. Dengsurvived his would-be killers in the Sudan, only to have hisidentity erased here.

The question of what motivates someone to fictionalize enormitiesthat he has not experienced--rather than fictionalizing theinfinite number of experiences within the reach of hisimagination--is a fine subject for critics and psychologists. Whenthe experiment succeeds, it quiets any skepticism about itsmotives. Directly or indirectly, poetically or plainly, calmly orangrily, cunningly or earnestly, if a writer can find a way torepresent evil, his motivation is about as relevant to hisachievement as his blood type. Form doesn't matter much, either.Spiegelman's Maus is as successful at fulfilling its aim asLanzmann's Shoah. The graphic novel and the film might exert theireffects on very different levels, but each work has an honorable,humane, and artistically original purpose. And each work is true toits purpose--no more, no less.

While Eggers inhabits Deng's life in What Is the What, it is Denghimself, ironically, who tells us in a preface what the book'spurpose 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 theauthor to reach out to others to help them understand theatrocities many successive governments of Sudan committed beforeand during the civil war.... Even when my hours were darkest, Ibelieved that some day I could share my experiences with readers,so as to prevent the same horrors from repeating themselves." Thething is, the same horrors are repeating themselves even now. Infact, the horrors never came to an end. And for people who knowDave Eggers's writing, Deng's heartbreakingly affirmativedeclaration of the possibility of closure--of the possibility of ahappy ending- -is strangely familiar.

If Eggers, the sincere young father of post-postmodernhalf-irony--call it sincerony--wants to raise public awareness ofthe genocide in Darfur, he is not alone; and it is an admirableundertaking. Eggers, in fact, is a wholly admirable figure inAmerican cultural life. With the money he made from his hugelysuccessful first book, A Heartbreaking Work of StaggeringGenius--itself a fictionalized memoir--he started a literarymagazine and publishing house called McSweeney's, and later anotherliterary magazine called the Believer, both of which are committedto publishing the work of writers just starting out. He hasestablished free writing workshops--literacy centers, really--foryoung people throughout the country.

Eggers could have published What Is the What with a big-timepublisher and gotten a considerable advance. Instead, he publishedit with McSweeney's and pledged to give the profits to variousagencies devoted to relieving the suffering in Darfur. I fullyexpect that he will do so. I cannot think of many figures in ourculture who have gone their own way, against the grain, to theextent that Eggers has. If he has flourished in the mainstream evenas 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 writeris another story. The very distinction, you feel, would exasperateEggers, since he has staked his creative life on an identificationof decent living with good writing. The conviction thatgood-intentioned people necessarily make good art is what liesbehind the hectic innovative blurring of fact and fiction inEggers's work, and in the work of the writers he publishes.

If there is a McSweeney's sensibility, it is summed up in theepigraph to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: "First ofall: I am tired. I am true of heart! And also: You are tired. Youare true of heart!" Art being, among other things, the inneraccount of what happens when deliberately or unwittingly untruehearts collide, the McSweeney's style, and Eggers's style, can readlike Peanuts for adults who are reluctant to grow up. In fact,Eggers prides himself on dividing his fictional and semi-fictionalworlds 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 ispopulated by young, childlike people mostly in their twenties, forwhom the more mature world--as in Peanuts--resembles the shadowsflickering on the wall of Plato's infamous cave. (One of the moststriking things about Eggers's work--and that of many of the writershe has influenced--is that you would be hard-pressed to find in ita description of the sexual act, if you can find one at all. Thismakes sense, because sex is a childlike act the first experience ofwhich results in growing up.)

The Eggers/McSweeney's true-heartedness consists of a permanentaching sadness. It can be due to heartless parents, as in SeanWilsey's memoir, Oh the Glory of It All. Or it can be the result ofparents who have died, as in A Heartbreaking Work. In that locusclassicus of the McSweeney's idiom, Eggers tells the fictionalizedactual story of how he raised his little brother all by himselfafter 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 insome hidden, imperceptible way. It is as though he were the founderof a religion. A lot of the writers who appear in McSweeney's andthe Believer strive not just to emulate Eggers's style, but also toassimilate Eggers's subjects.

The essence of Eggers's fictionalized memoir lies in the wordsspread across the book's cover: A Heartbreaking Work of StaggeringGenius. The extravagantly self-mocking title asks to be indulged asan innocent egotism born of great pain. At the same time, havingderided its artistic ambition into a nullity, the title also asksthat this modest, self-mocking decency be celebrated as a kind ofart. Children possess the same effective instinct for deprecatingwhat they truly (tearfully) want. The book's dynamic is almostdialectical: Eggers asserts his sadness, deflects it withtrivializing ironic digressions, and then makes this defensiveironizing of pain into an irreproachable new aesthetic. And thewhole thing is topped off by the coup-de-theatre of generouslyacknowledging the manipulativeness of it all. In other words, youhave to be in on the joke to get the pain, but you have to sharethe pain to be in on the joke. Then you can join the exclusiveegalitarian club known as McSweeney's.

And since the joke is literary, and the pain is personal, and thetwo are intertwined, you cannot ever criticize a work of artwithout insulting somebody's life. If you do, you are "snarky." Inthe end, the McSweeneyites dislike the impersonal judgments ofcriticism because they reject the impersonal authority of art. Sothey keep beating art back with personal facts, and beating downwith self-distancing, loquacious irony the ego that produced, withunacceptable autonomy, the work of art.

McSweeney's ethos of the personal nature of literary endeavormirrors its aesthetic of mixing fact and fiction. Or, I should say,self-consciously mixing fact and fiction, because the two are nevercomfortably integrated in Eggers's work. In his preface toHeartbreaking's paperback edition, Eggers declares that "this isnot, actually, a work of pure nonfiction. Many parts have beenfictionalized in varying degrees, for various purposes." But hedidn't have to tell us that. As he also writes in the preface--withdisarming candor--the book is full of characters who "break out oftheir narrative time-space continuum to cloyingly talk about thebook itself." Eggers is often reminding you of his artifice. It isas if he wanted you to believe that showing the seams between thereal and the made-up were a further kind of decency, and thus abetter type of art. He means his self-consciousness to be not somuch a postmodern trick as a public service.

But what Eggers is really doing in his "mash-ups" of fact andfiction is a lot more significant. By refusing entirely tointegrate the real and the imaginary into either fiction ornon-fiction--by insisting on the made-upness of it all, while stillpresenting it as something that really happened--he is givingfantasy the status of actuality. Wandering among his facts, hisfictions are more like daydreams than acts of "fictionalizing." Buthe presents them, with a kind of saintly insouciance, as facts. ForEggers, reality is continuous with whatever you want, mentally, todo to reality. For all of their effusions about the exaltedwonderfulness of art, the McSweeneyites, like Eggers, do nottransform reality, the way artists do. They juggle with it, the waydaydreamers and entertainers do.


This is not to say that A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Geniusdoesn't have a raw, magnetic, unexpected power, despite itsovercooked self- consciousness. Eggers is affectingly true to hisacheful, winking, self- dramatizing, self-distancing, sinceronicpurposes. But in What Is the What, he is not true to ValentinoAchak Deng's.

The Washington Post's article went on to explain Eggers's project inWhat Is the What:

More important, think of the ways fictionalizing Deng's story couldsolve narrative problems. By labeling the book a novel, Eggerssays, he freed himself to re-create conversations, streamlinecomplex relationships, add relevant detail and manipulate time andspace in helpful ways--all while maintaining the essentialtruthfulness of the storytelling.

A Heartbreaking Work struck a chord in many readers because itcaptured the shuffled planes of reality in our entertainmentculture of high-tech, multi- dimensional representation. (A goodpart of the book has Eggers being interviewed by a producer for theproto-reality show The Real World.) And it dramatized thefragility, and also the resilience, of selves trying to use all thethronging simulacra to protect themselves against life'safflictions. At times the book seemed written less by a singleauthor named Dave Eggers than by a committee of people sitting inEggers's brain, each person representing a different branch ofpopular culture. In A Heartbreaking Work, Eggers also "freedhimself to re-create conversations, streamline complexrelationships, add relevant detail and manipulate time and space inhelpful 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 henever called that book a novel.

The assumptions of A Heartbreaking Work were that fantasy isco-extensive with reality, that making stuff up is fine if itpreserves your trueheartedness. But these assumptions collapse inWhat Is the What--or, rather, they are routed by its subject. Theencounter between Eggers's small sly ethos and a genocidalhistorical event is a messy collision between childhood andreality; between whimsical, self-protective artistic license and asituation where life and death are balanced on the differencebetween truth and falsehood.

After all, the single most powerful argument against the massmurderers in Khartoum--who blame the genocide on the rebels inDarfur and claim to be innocent of programmatic killing--is thetestimony of the victims of Khartoum. And the power of thisargument rests on a belief in the sanctity of the truth; on thepalpable presence of the human subject, on his memory and histrustworthiness and his authenticity; on the fact that this uniqueunduplicatable human individual, the one giving the testimony,survived. Indeed, it is the perpetrators of genocide who are themasters of freeing themselves "to re-create conversations,streamline complex relationships, add relevant detail andmanipulate time and space"--all in the most destructive waysimaginable.

Valentino Achak Deng, the man and the human argument, does notreally exist in What Is the What. Eggers's voice is all over thebook, in a way that it would never have been if he had stuck withhis original intention to write a conventional biography. No onewould ever confuse a biographer's voice, no matter how strong, withthat of his subject. But Eggers has totally subsumed his Sudanesehero's voice into his own. Here is a passage from the final page ofWhat Is the What:

I speak to these people, and I speak to you because I cannot helpit. It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to knowthat you are there. I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsiblespace between us. How blessed are we to have each other? I am aliveand you are alive so we must fill the air with our words. I willfill 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, willnot say no to anything, will try to stay awake while everyone issleeping, will not sleep, will make the shoes with the elves, willbreathe deeply all the time, breathe in all the air full of glassand nails and blood, will breathe it and drink it, so rich, so whenit comes we will not be angry, will be content, tired enough to go,gratefully, will shake hands with everyone, bye, bye, and then packa bag, some snacks, and go to the volcano--

Somehow, the celebrated post-postmodern American writer and theimpoverished Sudanese survivor both end their tales of radicallydifferent trauma with the same Yes! to life, the same thankfulnessfor every simple day, the same feeling of blessedness andgratitude, the same vow of wakefulness and strength, the sameacceptance of death. As for Eggers protecting the voice ofValentino, 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 noneof this. You seem unaware that there is a bound and gagged man onthe floor, and that you are watching television in this man'shome.

And this, from A Heartbreaking Work:

It's awkward, and I can't do both things while sitting on the arm ofthe couch and still be in a position to see the television. I trykneeling on the floor next to the couch. I reach over the arm ofthe couch to apply the ice with one hand, and pressure with theother.

Eggers might well protest that he novelized Deng's experiencesbecause a dry, unadorned account of Deng's ordeal would read asjust another piece of transcribed testimony, thousands of which youcan find in the files of any human rights organization. After awhile, they all begin to sound like one another, in a singlemind-numbing blur of human sorrow. Such an arid telling would neverattract readers in large numbers, and so would never succeed inmaking large numbers of people aware of the crisis in Sudan. Thismay be true-- except that few people are going to be galvanizedinto political or financial action by Eggers's telling of Deng'sstory. The self-conscious equivalence between decent living andgood writing that makes Eggers and the McSweeneyites so oddly loathto portray human darkness turns Deng's experiences into a type offairy tale.

The trouble in Deng's life begins when one day the rebels appear inhis village. They demand that Deng's father, a modestly successfulmerchant, give them all his sugar. He refuses. One of the rebelsbecomes enraged:

And with that, without any sort of passion, he kicked my father inthe face. The sound was dull, like a hand slapping the hide of acow. He kicked him again and the sound was different this time. Acrack, precisely like the breaking of a stick under one's knee.

At that moment, something in me snapped. I felt it, I could not bemistaken. It was as if there were a handful of taut strings insideme, holding me straight, holding together my brain and heart andlegs, and at that moment, one of these strings, thin and delicate,snapped.

No less than three similes cushion the reader from the blowinflicted on the father and its effect on his young son. And theyare not particularly fresh similes, either. The rhythm of thesentences is lovely; the subjunctive is absolutely correct. But therhythm gives the ugly thing a prettifying framework, and theinappropriately formal subjunctive makes the violence even moreremote.

Shortly after this, the entire passage is drained of whatevershocking inhumanity it might have had by the trademarkEggers/McSweeney's trueheartedness--the belief that the reader istoo tired and pure of heart to be exposed to assholes. Having readof the crack in Deng's father's body, having been told thatsomething essential in Deng snapped, you assume that the father isdead. You read about a helicopter attack (why does Eggers have Dengcall them "great black crickets," when Deng has been to a modernschool where he learned about modern life?) and about more terror,and because the father is not mentioned you go on thinking that heis dead. But then he suddenly appears, just days after being sobrutally beaten, seemingly in good health, without anyafter-effects from the beating, and with no further reference to theheart- snapping crack. Nearly all of Eggers's descriptions ofviolence are just as evasively, gingerly, handled. It is likeputting a protective hand over a child's eyes.

A reader could come away from this wrenching book without any urgentsense of human misery in Sudan at all. One of Eggers's majorcontrivances is to have Deng start telling his story while he isthe victim of a hold-up in his Atlanta apartment. This goes on forsomething like two hundred pages. Even after he has been bound andgagged, he calmly addresses his captors in his mind and deliverslong, exquisitely paced and elegantly written accounts of his ordealin Sudan, and then in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. The effect ofthis absurd narrative trick is to perfect the unreality created byall the incongruous writerly figures of speech, and by the "decent"discretion about scenes of violence or sex. Incredibly, rape iscarefully alluded to two or three times, but never described.

Eggers means well, he means well, he means well--you cannot say itenough times. You do not need to convince me that he wrote the bookfor no other reason than to move people to action with Deng'sstory. But Eggers is a creature of the culture that he helped tocreate. He is a creature of the McSweeneyite confusion of goodintentions with good art, and of its blithe elision--partlypioneered by Eggers himself in A Heartbreaking Work of StaggeringGenius--of truth with untruth, prevarication with pretense.

The worst aspect of What Is the What--the title refers to a Sudaneseproverb warning against the unknown--is that Deng's attitudes aretyrannically refracted through Eggers's reshaping of them. Dengdoes not represent himself. Eggers represents him. You never knowwhether the startling self-pity that Deng occasionallydisplays--when two other boys are eaten by lions, Deng laments hisunluckiness--is his own or not. In Deng's own voice, these flashesfrom the underside of his ego might have been extenuated by ironyor self-awareness. The same goes for Deng's hostile, suspicious,sometimes contemptuous attitudes toward American blacks. They mighthave been somehow vindicated in the full- throated revelation ofhis personality. Or maybe not. We will never know. In Eggers'shands, the survivor's voice does not survive.

Where is the dignity in that? How strange for one man to think thathe could write the story of another man, a real living man who isperfectly capable of telling his story himself--and then call it anautobiography. It is just one more instance of the acceleratingmash-up of truth and falsehood in the culture, which mirrorsand--who knows?--maybe even enables the manipulation of truth inpolitics.

And Eggers's book is also another unsettling thing. I never thoughtI would reach for this vocabulary, but What Is the What's innocentexpropriation of another man's identity is a post-colonialarrogance--the most socially acceptable instance of Orientalism youare likely to encounter. Perhaps this is the next stage of Americanmemoir. Perhaps, having run out of marketable stories to tell aboutourselves, we will now travel the world in search of desperatepeople willing to rent out their lives, the way indigent people insome desolate places give up their children. Perhaps we have pickedour psyches clean, and now we need other people's stories the waywe need other people's oil.

By Lee Siegel