Thursday, July 31, 2008

What is the What, Dave Eggers. The autobiographical novel?

Kakuma Camp.
Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng.

There was a time when I liked novels unequivocally. Or at least, I seem to think there was a time. I hesitate to say that novels from the past were better than those published today. Novels from the past come with a past history, with a rich context that introduces them. Modern novels come without any additional flavour. It is hard to enjoy and weigh up a modern work of fiction. Put another way: novels from the past come with reputations. A reader isn’t asked to start with the question “Is it any good?” Wuthering Heights is a great novel. Ulysses is a great novel. Tom Jones is a great novel. Middlemarch is a great novel. The aim is to enjoy them, leaving aside what “enjoy” means. But with modern works of fiction, those with real scope, such as Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, or Okri’s Starbook, or Eggers’ What is the What, I am never able to start with “Let me enjoy!”; reading always begins with “Is this any good?”

Dave Eggers’ What is the What is a novel with scope and depth. But it isn’t a novel I can like unequivocally. Recently, I caught the critic Mark Kermode discussing the latest Batman offering. He was delighted, yet disappointed. As he put it, “I wanted to love the film, lose myself in it, but I could only admire it.” “Could only admire it.”

Admire. To look at. To view a separate but related image.

That is very much my experience of reading What is the What. The novel tells the story of Valentino Achak Deng and his escape from Sudan’s genocide, to Pinyudo (Ethiopia), Kakuma Refugee Camp (Kenya), then life in the USA as one of the “Lost Boys”. Unlike Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, which presented boy soldiering as fact and subsequently became accused of fiction and error, Eggers presents the real story of Achak as fiction. This allows Eggers to frame the story in a way suitable to Eggers— experimental fiction— and to avoid accusations of factual mistakes. Fiction is fiction and all it can truly confess is its fictionality.

The problem with What is the What, then, is not related to memory and truth. The problem is related to how Eggars structures fictional truths. Undoubtedly, the story of Valentino Achek Deng is powerfully told. His is a story of incredible courage. The novel captures that admirably. Yet, there are framing devices which are not convincing. The novel is 533 pages long. Perhaps, it takes a novel of this length to show the educational odyssey of Achak. Perhaps, not. The novel opens in the USA as Achak is attacked and burgled. Achak begins to tell his story (in his head) to his namelss attackers. There is real poignancy as Achak contrasts the brutality of a civilised country to the horrors from which he has escaped. Less convincing, however, is the repeating of this method as Achak continues to tell his story to Julian at the hospital. Yes, the story-telling has an interesting effect…the reader becomes an interloper…but effects seem to matter more than the story at times. The strongest parts of the novel are when this device is forgotten and a reader is calmed into listening to the terrors of Achak’s story. When the novel becomes a brutal lullaby it has incredible impact. Jee Leong Koh has an interesting set of reflections on his blog at the moment that relate to the art and artlessness of the narrative voice. Eggers keeps the story within Achak's mind, his persepective, but doesn't always give that narrative voice a psychological perspective. Like Ford Madox Ford (see JLK above), Eggars does not impose chronology. His narrator goes backwards and forwards, telling the story as it would be in life, allowing the narrator to come alive like a real person: we do not get to know a real person from the egg, but from midway in life, then bits are added on from periods as they become relevant. And those new bits change how we feel about that person. But this method can become a rag-bag of tales...make the narrator more true to life, less fictional, but also less able to reveal the truths that the story needs to show. Readers don't go to fiction to learn what they could learn in real life. I suppose, as a reader, I wanted to know about the inner mind of Achak, yet the fiction did not allow me this extra insight.
Great novels from the past balanced narrative voice and events. Fielding was a master of structural story-telling. At times, What is the What, runs away with itself rather than with Achak. A paradox seems to operate. Eggars has made fact into fiction so as he can control fact, but he has not allowed fiction to impose fictional constraints and give structure to the story-telling. Fiction starts to resemble the mess of life and become uncontrolled.

What is the What is a very important modern novel. I ended up admiring it, though I wanted to like it more than that.


Id it is said...

"Fiction starts to resemble the mess of life and become uncontrolled." ...that's an interesting point you bring out and one which has been bothering me for a while though i wasn't able to pinpoint it as exactly as you have. Also, the idea of 'structured story telling' needs some thought... I was reminded of Forster's "Aspects of a Novel" which defined a good story as having a beginning, a middle and an end, though not necessarily in that order. Your post makes me wonder what it is about modern novels like Eggers or then Divakarunis "Palace of Illusions' that make the reader a shade uncomfortable such that he is able to admire the piece but not go all out and like it without reservation.
I will definitely want to read this one; hopefully before the summer is over!
Thanks for visiting 'Folding the map'; some interesting posts there!

Eshuneutics said...

Egger's is better known (apparently) for fictional games, playing with the reader. "What is the What" (seemingly) is straight-forward story-telling, according to the reviews I've read. I would say that the novel is cinematographic, written in biopic mode.There are all kinds of issues with the "autobiographical novel", as Eggers terms this work. Such makes me think of Defoe and the birth of the novel where the novel was little more than the structuring of events encountered first-hand by the author-- "Journal of the Plague Year".