A mind-numbing work of staggering dullness

Dave Eggers’ new non-fiction novel about a former child soldier is boring, bullying and besotted with its own moral probity.

Emily Hill

Topics Books

Is Dave Eggers on course to become the Mother Teresa of the literary world, toiling in the world’s armpits of misery so that we don’t have to?

Eggers’ breakthrough work was A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a misery memoir of sorts, which frequently ‘disappeared up its own irony’ (1). He went on to become the patron saint of lit-mag McSweeney’s and to colonise America’s liberal, postmodernist conscience by doing all sorts of good deeds – like setting up a group called 826 Valencia to encourage underprivileged children to develop their writing skills.

His latest tome is What is the What, the true story of Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng and his experiences as a child soldier. Deng now lives in America. All proceeds from the book ‘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’.

Even though it’s a true story, Eggers has written it as a novel rather than a biography or a memoir. It tells of a life of appalling suffering. Horrid and real descriptions of death, cruelty and deprivation permeate every page. Because of this, as one critic pointed out, declaring that the book isn’t much good ‘may sound churlish’ (2). For who, in their right mind, would slag off a book about the horrors of life as a child soldier? It would be like taking to task Mother Teresa (which, of course, some writers have done). ‘Often’, adds a reviewer in the Guardian, ‘in its catalogue of horror, What is the What has the starkness – and style – of a Human Rights Watch report. If [Eggers’] book doesn’t change your life, it might well change the lives of others.’

Well it’s certainly changed mine. After throwing its impressively bound 474 pages at my mother in a fit of irrepressible boredom, I think I can kiss goodbye to any more weekend sabbaticals to her home in the countryside. As if it weren’t enough that we are no longer supposed to smoke, drink or shovel anything lard-soaked down our gullets – but must live on air, carrot juice and omega-3 supplements instead – liberal-media land is now busy exhorting us to spend our free time reading excruciatingly dull books that are ‘good for our collective conscience’. How long before such reading is made compulsory, as PM-in-waiting Gordon Brown prescribes Darfur-based ‘edu-lit’ – this ‘admirable… faction’, ’emotional primer’, ‘documentary novel’, ‘stonking fictionalised memoir’ and all the other godforsaken terminology reviewers have concocted to classify Eggers’ latest drear-fest – for national reading during the summer holidays? Nothing is more likely to put the dampers on your hols and tempt you to drown yourself in your tropical swimming pool than the message of this turgid tome: ‘We’re all to blame for Sudan! None of us care! Pre-genocidal African tribal life is so much more meaningful than ours!’ (AAAAAAAARgghhhhhh – SPLOSH! Goodbye cruel world!)

The book opens with Valentino Achak Deng being robbed and beaten by African-American thieves in his adopted home of the USA: the robbers leave him lying on the floor, his head bleeding and his mouth gagged. Remembering that he has just opened his door in a high crime area to a bunch of complete strangers, Deng, as characterised in Eggers’ novel, notes that he has been ‘a fool…because I was taught many times by good men and women with rigid moral codes [and] I find strength in asserting what is right’.

The character of Deng thinks it is very important that Americans know what is right – and he seems especially keen to use his African suffering as a way of pointing to the moral failings of American blacks. ‘I am sad to say that again it was young African Americans… [by whom] we felt watched, pursued… [no one] warn[ed] us that I would be told by American teenagers that I should go back to Africa.’ African-Americans – it’s true – did not decimate his village back in Sudan, but they have cut him in queues. ‘When I first came to this country, I would tell silent stories. I would tell them to the people who had wronged me. If someone cut in front of me in line, ignored me, bumped me or pushed me, I would glare at them, staring, silently hissing a story to them. You do not understand, I would tell them…. And until that person left my sight I would tell them about [a friend] who died after eating elephant meat, nearly raw, or about Ahok or Awach….’ Glaring at American citizens and lecturing them about his suffering: I’m sorry, but Deng, through Eggers, comes across as a bit of a pompous ass.

Much of the African dialogue reads like limpid swathes of Alexander McCall Smith, with Eggers adopting the style of Mma Ramotswe to make another bleedingly simple statement in pseudo-ethnic patter:
‘Deng runs fast, carrying water (“very clean water, very well filtered and good for anything she can dream of”) for the girl he loves:
“I was running fast” – I say.
“You were certainly running fast”, she marvels.
“You are such a true gentleman”, she says… “to run like that for me.”’

The whole novel carries on in a similarly stilted fashion. Flat and featureless, there are no fluctuations in tone and no rhetorical flourishes. What is the What is a wilderness of a book.

In the opening passage, Deng is guarded by a young boy whom he refers to mysteriously as ‘TV boy’. ‘There was life in these villages, there is life!’ he tells ‘TV boy’. ‘You would gasp at the seeming dearth of movement, of human settlements. [T]here are no cities…there are no streetlamps, there are no roads.’ So ‘be grateful, TV boy’, he says, and ‘have respect’: ‘Have you seen the beginning of war?’ TV boy raises the phone book to throw it at him. ‘This boy thinks I am not of his species, that I am some kind of creature, one that can be crushed under the weight of a phone book. The pain is not great, but the symbolism is disagreeable.’

Yes, I find the symbolism disagreeable too. Eggers is clumsily and relentlessly lecturing what he sees as all of our inner ‘TV boys’. It becomes a labour just to turn the page, where you know there will be more of the same. What is the What is boring, bullying and besotted with its own good intentions. It might have changed my life, as many books have done, if it had managed to transform itself into a proper story, a proper imaginative excavation of a life, rather than a vacant, laboured catalogue of horrible facts and incidents delivered in a mind-bludgeoning fashion. Deng’s suffering appals – of course it does – but the novel is so bereaved of skill, rhythm, charm or natural propulsion that it reads about as well as TV boy’s phonebook.

But then it is clear that What is the What is not meant to entertain us: rather it is meant to facilitate a wallowing in our moral failings. Eggers has leapt from irony-drenched misery lit to turgid Western-guilt lit. Next time he should just be done with it and republish a Human Rights Watch report complete with colour photographs and a standing order form for the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation.

Emily Hill is staff writer at spiked and a blogger for Dazed and Confused.

What Is the What by Dave Eggers was published by Hamish Hamilton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK))

(1) What is the What, Andrew Holgate, The Sunday Times, 3 June 2007

(2) A lost boy who found his voice, Tim Adams, Observer, May 20 2007

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Topics Books


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