A few months ago I received a copy of Dave Eggers’ new novel What is the What, and, after leafing through it, I set it aside to read later. Except that later never came. Something about the book made me uncomfortable, and the encomiums it has received in the press haven’t really changed my mind. London Review of Books contributing editor Thomas Jones expresses that discomfort better than I could:
The book itself makes no attempt to explain how such a hybrid came into being. Readers are twice reassured in small type that ‘all proceeds . . . will go to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, which distributes funds to Sudanese refugees in America; to rebuilding Southern Sudan, beginning with Marial Bai; to organisations working for peace and humanitarian relief in Darfur; and to the college education of Valentino Achak Deng.’ But Eggers is repeatedly referred to as ‘the author’, and his is the only name on the cover or the copyright page (the subtitle, ‘The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng’, appears only on the title page). This may make sense from the point of view of publicity and sales – Eggers’s name sells books, and selling more books raises awareness of and more funds for the causes that matter most to Achak – but it also inspires unease: Achak may benefit from the text, but he doesn’t own it; he has become a character in a fictionalised version of his life story that legally belongs to someone else. Practically speaking, this hardly matters: the motives for and consequences of Eggers’s actions are unquestionably benevolent, and the book could not have taken the form it has without Achak’s consent and blessing.
And yet, that a story so concerned with so many different forms of dispossession should itself be subject to a variety of appropriation is not unproblematic, and requires a more positive justification than mere silence. Eggers, unlike many of Achak’s American friends and benefactors, does not feature as a character in What Is the What. No doubt it was important to avoid distracting readers with anything that could be mistaken for cute metafictional trickery, one of the less interesting but more remarked-on aspects of Eggers’s first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a lightly fictionalised account of bringing up his younger brother after the deaths of his parents from cancer. But in What Is the What, Eggers is conspicuous by his absence from the narrative, which leaves you wondering how his name came to such solitary prominence on the cover, how the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng came to be ‘Copyright © Dave Eggers’.
Read the rest of this otherwise positive review here.