What is the What by Dave Eggers. Vintage, 2007. Paperback. 560 pages.
After I finished What is the What, I couldn't help but feel a bit of relief. This book is long, packed with information, and relentless in its lack of positive events. This book definitely made me put on my reading brakes and slow down a bit. What is the What is an average sized book, but because of the thin pages, small font, and dense content, this book took a bit longer than expected to read. Fortunately, I can honestly say that the books did hold my attention very well for a majority of the story.
This book is written in a first person narrative by Valentino Achak Deng himself, but it is written by Dave Eggers, which makes it a bit of a fictionalized autobiography. What is the What takes the reader along on Valentino's journey from a young boy living in Sudan to a lost refugee trying to make his way to safety, and eventually to a life in America.
What is the What is mainly split into two main time frams: Valentino in the present-day, telling his story, and Valentino as a younger boy in Sudan. The present day point of view only covers about two days of his life in total, and it is in these two days that Valentino takes the reader back and forth while and narrates his life and journey in Sudan as a young boy to a young man. In addition to these two time frames, there are also narratives interspersed between the present and past in which Valentino relates memories about his recent past living in America. If all of what I just described sounds confusing, it's because it sort of is at first, but fortunately it's easy to catch on. Plus, the style changes somewhat when he is narrating his past, which helps understand when a time frame change has taken place.
You have to pay attention in this book. There are so. many. details. I felt lost trying to remember all of the names of many of the characters, so I stopped trying if a name or location didn't stick with me. And although this is a frustrating aspect of the story, it is a positive at the same time, as it adds a certain level of intrigue and authenticity that really helped me become immersed into the life of Valentino.
The content itself is fascinating. Valentino's story is heartbreaking, full of hope and despair all at the same time. I felt inspired by the crazy, intense struggles Valentino went through and how he handled everything. This book is harsh reminder of what life is like for many war refugees, and an important look into what life is like in many of these circumstances.
With as much detail and careful thought that was put into the telling of this story, however, I still found myself feeling lost or as if I was missing things at times. Certain minor details were never expanded upon (i.e. his headaches - did he ever get medical treatment for them? is there anything wrong? I need answers!) and it frustrated me to have so much information presented to me, but at the same time not having enough information presented to me about important events and aspects. Time periods are occasionally skipped over, and I wanted to hear more about some of them.
This is what I consider a great example of Eggers' writing. I've read a few of his other books, the most recent being The Circle, and I was extremely disappointed. His writing did not seem up to par, and is absolutely not what I would recommend to someone who is just trying out Eggars' writing for the first time - this book is. Overall, I am giving What is the What our stars!
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