ISSUE 8 — April, 2007

What is the What — Dave Eggers

When I was little, my grandmother had a “foster child” in Korea, through the Foster Parents Plan. The organization was started by an Englishman during the Spanish Civil War, and offered a personal approach to humanitarian aid. The sponsor contributed to the health care and education of an individual child, as well as community projects, and the relationship was enhanced by exchanging letters and photos with the children.

Grandma used to show me black-and-white snapshots of the little Korean boy she wrote to, and letters from him and the local aid workers, all in the Korean script, angular and elegant. In my suburban Canadian childhood, in the much-less-worldly ’50s, I was powerfully impressed by that glimpse of a world that was so exotic—so alien. In retrospect, it must have been one of my first inklings of how different, and how fascinating, other people and places could be.

As a grownup, I followed Grandma’s example, and sponsored several children myself through the Foster Parents Plan. Having become moderately successful, I tried to live by the principle, “If you do well, you should try to do good,” and I was involved in many humanitarian and environmental causes. I especially liked the personal nature of the Foster Parents Plan, but perhaps it was inevitable that I would get to care about those children—like the unforgettable Yamira Francia Espinosa, from the impoverished province of Buenaventura, in Colombia. The Foster Parents Plan sent me colorful drawings and warm letters from Yamira, full of expressions of joy and love, and adorable snapshots of her and her mother. Like most dads, I was a pushover for a sweet little girl, and for several years I wrote her letters and sent photos of me and my family. Then the organization suddenly informed me that because Yamira had reached the age of 13, she was no longer “eligible” for the program. They sent me a file and photos of another needy child, from another country, and though I understood what they were trying to do—help as many children as they could—another child could not so easily take the place of Yamira Francia Espinosa.

I recount that experience because of course I have always wondered what became of Yamira, and of another foster child I had at the same time, a boy from the Sudan. In turn, I mention him because Dave Eggers’s latest work, What is the What, is based on the true story of a boy from the Sudan—a country almost without peer in its sufferings, from drought, famine, corruption, civil war, genocide, anarchy, pestilence, disease, you name it.

Dave Eggers became a literary phenomenon with his first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The title was ironic, of course, but time may prove it fairly accurate. The combination of talent, youth, daring, caring, and depth of character revealed in that book completely absorbed me. His next novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, remains one of my all-time favorites—a book I simply loved—and Eggers made an admirable statement of personal principle by releasing the first edition exclusively through independent bookstores. I admire that kind of maverick activism, like the time Stephen King did a book tour by motorcycle (yeah!), visiting only independent stores.

Eggers’s next publication was a wide-ranging story collection called How We Are Hungry, and meanwhile, using the leverage of his success, he was active in a more pragmatic way—helping to launch a publishing house, McSweeney’s. That imprint might be the literary equivalent of an “indie” record label, or a fine-art book publisher—conceived by dedicated artisans who actually lived and worked by the principle of “Art for art’s sake.” (And, as 10CC sang, “Money for god’s sake.”) McSweeney’s has produced many adventurous, worthwhile, and moderately subversive editions, with imaginative bindings and gratuitous examples of the “bookmaker’s” craft. (And for once, the definition of “gratuitous” is entirely apt: “gra·tu·i·tous adj 1. unnecessary and unjustifiable 2. received or given without payment or obligation 3. not requiring any benefit or compensation in return.” That’s a pretty good definition of art for art’s sake—from a businessman’s point-of-view, anyway.)

The publication of What is the What merited a front-page review in the New York Times Book Review, which is a signal honor. As a fan of Eggers’s previous books, I dove eagerly into that review, but reading the synopsis of the story, I wasn’t sure I would be so keen to read that book.

As a potential reader, you have to think, “Do I really want to suffer through a story about a child who escaped alone from the Sudan as it was torn apart by warring gangs of heavily-armed thugs who destroyed his village and murdered his neighbors, who survived in Kenyan refugee camps for ten years, until finally he made his way to the United States—where he was beaten and robbed by American thieves?”

The short answer is, yes, I do.

I am constantly amazed by the transformation a great artist can achieve by filtering harsh reality through a fine sensibility—transforming an ugly story into something of beauty. (Here’s a vague quote along those lines—the kind I remember from somewhere, but can’t find its attribution: “Art is reality filtered through a sensibility.”) All of the arts are capable of this apotheosis (especially painting, it occurs to me), and in literature, it began with the Greeks, Cervantes, and Shakespeare. In more modern times, just to mention a few examples, I think of Nelson Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees, Chinua Achebe’s classic African trilogy beginning with Things Fall Apart, and in a similar vein, Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. These are not “pretty” stories, but they are beautiful works of art.

Thinking farther and wider, so much of modern literature, especially the powerful wave of realism that spread from Balzac and Zola across to the New World, and America’s 20th century, reflects that grit and sensibility. Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald—sometimes thought of as exemplifying a romantic, almost decadent, sensibility, but that can be seen as more of a typical 20th century focus on his image. Similarly, Hemingway’s personal celebrity, like Jack London’s before him, made his novels “read” differently. Fitzgerald’s arguable masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, is not a glamorous, romantic story, it is sordid and tragic—but its telling is beautiful.

The definition of art as a combination of Truth and Beauty traces back to Plato, and still holds. Truth may also be the province of journalism, history, science, and biography (ideally), and beauty can be created by designers—industrial visionaries, architects, and decorative artists—but the combination of the two is the sublime, transcendent province of genuine art. I remember feeling enlightened when I learned that the term “fine art” comes from the French fin—the end. Art as the end, art for art’s sake.

And that transcendent transformation of injustice into art is what Dave Eggers has accomplished with What is the What. One of the lessons that art, especially literature, can bring to us is the recognition that the world’s strangeness is not so alien after all. The story of the Sudanese boy you come to know as Valentino is told with such a natural progression of events and his reactions to them that you simply understand him. What he’s faced with, what he does, and what he feels about it, are what you can imagine you would experience in such dire circumstances. Valentino tries to avoid danger, makes the best of the world he encounters, and tries to make it better if he can, for himself and for others. That may be the highest expression of humanity.

As with all great fiction, there is much more to Dave Eggers’s story than what it’s “about.” A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was “about” two young orphans. You Shall Know Our Velocity was “about” an idealistic young man who thinks he can do a good deed without being punished. Similarly, What is the What is not “about” the misadventures of a Sudanese refugee. It is about all of us.

As literature, I think What is the What is a modern masterpiece, by a gifted artist of early promise who has now matured enough as a writer and as a human being to dare to co-opt another person’s life—a real person’s life, it should be stressed—and transform it into a tale of truth and beauty. To a modern citizen of the world, there is no doubt that Valentino’s story is a tale that deserves to be told, but that doesn’t make it art. It is the talent, vision, courage, and ambition of Dave Eggers that makes this story timeless and transcendent—true and beautiful.

I have never met Dave Eggers, but I just get this feeling he’s “my kind of guy.” The foreword to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius includes an itemized list of how he spent the advance he was paid for the book; the usual “boilerplate” publishing data is riddled with jokes; and the later addendum, Mistakes We Knew We Were Making, enumerates the liberties he had taken with the facts for the sake of the story.

The world could use more artists, and more human beings, like Dave Eggers. My recommendation is to read this book. In fact, read all his books.