Dave Eggers entered the literary world with a big bang. His first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), came out of nowhere and sat on the bestseller list for 14 weeks. It also made Eggers a Pulitzer Prize finalist and almost the recipient of a rich movie deal — had he not turned it down.
This wunderkind’s early success naturally created high expectations, and his next efforts, a novel in 2002 and a collection of short stories in 2004, never quite captured readers’ imagination in the same way. Now, with What Is the What, we see Eggers coming back home to non-fiction, albeit a very different form of non-fiction than the one we discovered in AHWOSG. Here, the post-modern devices drop out of sight, and what we get is more the imaginary journalism that we’ve previously encountered in the works of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer.
The What is the What recounts the long journey of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the 20,000 “Lost Boys,” who fled the Sudanese Civil War (1983–2005) and, though mostly younger than than 10, traveled alone to Ethiopia, Kenya and, in some cases, the United States. (About 4,000 ended up in the US in 2001.) Because Valentino began his odyssey as a mere six year-old, the whole question of memory get raised. How much does a child remember? Broad outlines maybe. But how many facts, details and conversations fade away? As Eggers explains in a recent interview , the creative elements added to this otherwise factual account serve to fill in these gaps in recollection, and the elements, themselves, are based on historical records and Valentino’s general sense of things. It is here that Eggers’ notion of imaginative journalism sets itself apart from many other attempts at new journalism. The point of imagination for Eggers isn’t so much to dress up dry facts and drive the narrative along, but to make the historical record more complete and, in a genuine way, give a fuller account of a personal experience. Perhaps this comes off as a meaningless shade of difference. But, when you get down to it, it’s more substantive than not.
Articles and Reviews:
This hour-long radio interview with Eggers and Valentino is definitely worth a listen.
NPR Fact Page: Dedicated to Eggers’ new book, this page includes links to a recent NPR interview, excerpts from the new book, and historical information about the Lost Boys.
You can get more contextual information from the PBS site, which accompanies its film, Lost Boys of Sudan.