What Is the What? is the novelized autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys who left their homes in southern Sudan during the civil war in the 1980s. Now living in Atlanta, Deng tells of his journey from his hometown to a refugee camp and finally to America. He describes the people he meets along the way, the dangers he encounters, his hopes and fears, and his challenges in adjusting to American life.
Dave Eggers, author of the book, met Valentino after he had been in America for a couple of years, and the two worked together on the book, with Valentino telling his story and Eggers shaping it into a coherent narrative. They claim that the novel is historically accurate, but because many of the events happened so long ago, Deng could not accurately recall everything that happened, and so they have deemed it fiction.
The story itself is fascinating, and Deng himself is very likable. Narrator Dion Graham imbues him with a wonderful voice, one that I was pleased to return to. His account of adjusting to life in the U.S. was particularly interesting. Deng’s story of going to his sponsor’s house for dinner for the first time made me laugh but also helped me understand the difficulty of adjusting to an entirely new culture.
Overall, however, the book is a mixed success. At times, the story is too episodic. It jumps back and forth in time, from Deng’s current life in the U.S. to his journey to the camps, to his first years in the U.S., and then back to the present day. I don’t mind this kind of narration in general, but in this case I never felt that there was a strong enough narrative momentum to keep me interested.
Also, Eggers uses a strange narrative device in which Deng imagines himself telling his story to the people he encounters throughout the day. This seemed clever at the beginning, when he’s thinking of telling his story to people who are robbing him. It seemed natural that he might imagine ways to play on their sympathies. After a while, however, this technique began to feel too artificial, particularly in the last section.
These narrative quirks aside, if you’re interested in learning more about the Lost Boys, this book is a pretty good place to start. Personally, I got more out of the documentary God Grew Tired of Us, but I suspect that was because I knew so little about the Lost Boys when I saw it. Had I encountered What Is the What? first, I might have liked it more.