By Dave Eggers
REVIEWED BY JONATHAN DURBIN
McSweeney’s magazine founder and literary gadfly Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) has crafted a second novel that is as much an absolute classic as it is difficult to classify. What Is the What is the enormously affecting life story of Valentino Achak Deng, 25, who is one of the famous Sudanese Lost Boys. Eggers relates the saga of his struggle for survival in an embellished as-told-to style: As Deng explains in the preface, “Over the course of many years, I told my story orally to the author. He then concocted this novel, approximating my voice and using the basic events of my life as the foundation…. And though it is fictionalized, it should be noted that the world I have known is not so different than the one depicted within these pages.” The existence that Eggers describes is incredibly brutal, from Deng’s separation from his family and his trek across southern Sudan to Ethiopia—fleeing from the murderous Arabic horsemen of Khartoum—to the 13 years he lived in squalor in refugee camps and his anticlimactic arrival in the United States. Deng’s faith is constantly tested, which makes his redemption—when it finally arrives—transcendent. With this, his fourth book, Eggers proves himself a master of narrative, both for what he has written here and for his choice of subject, which is compelling, important and vital to the understanding of the politics and emotional consequences of oppression.