Saturday, October 6, 2012

Lost it all but rich in "selves" (Books - What is the What by Dave Eggers)

What is the What is the first of Dave Eggers's books I have read.  It is distinct and unusual.  It tells the harrowing story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the 'Lost Boys' of Sudan,  relating the events of his life that finally brought him to Atlanta in the U.S., but it bills itself as both an autobiography and a novel. An autobiography because Achak Deng related his life story to Eggers himself.  A novel, I guess, because Eggers took liberties with his story to make it into a readable book.  As I started writing the first sentence of this post I was going going to describe the story as 'unreal,' so mind bogglingly awful are many of the events.  Perhaps this is why Eggers wanted to create from its events rather than simply try to record them.  Sometimes the truth is unbelievable, or perhaps he (wisely) mistrusted his ability to relate only the facts since no one - not Deng in the telling nor Eggers in the retelling - truly leaves a story unchanged.  In any event, the result is outrage-provoking yet beautifully fashioned, compellingly told, and, finally, warming.

The structure Eggers found for the novel is the true brilliance of this work.  It takes Deng's horror story as one of tens-of-thousands of orphaned boys, (many of whom see their parents murdered), the hundreds of miles they walked to Ethiopia, their internment in refugee camps in Kenya for many years, and some of their eventual resettlement accomplished by the U.N. and private charities, to other countries around the world. It places this saga unfolding over many years inside an event of opposite proportions.  This second story concerns a random act of mindless violence and exploitative greed perpetrated against one man (also Deng), in a modest setting (his apartment in Atlanta), in events which unfold within a few hours.  Deng is robbed at gun point because he trusts a woman asking for help who shows up at the front door of his apartment.
In my life I have been struck in many different ways but never with the barrel of a gun.  I have the fortune of having seen more suffering than I have suffered myself, but nevertheless, I have been starved, I have been beaten with sticks, with rods, with brooms and stones and spears.  I have ridden five miles on a truckbed loaded with corpses.  I have watched too many young boys die in the desert, some as if sitting down to sleep, some after days of madness.  I have seen three boys taken by lions, eaten haphazardly.  I watched them lifted from their feet, carried off in the animal's jaws and devoured in the high grass, close enough that I could hear the wet snapping sounds of the tearing of flesh.  I have watched a close friend die next to me in an overturned truck, his eyes open to me, his life leaking from a hole I could not see.  And yet at this moment, as I am strewn across the couch and my hand is wet with blood, I find myself missing all of Africa.  I miss Sudan, I miss the howling grey desert of northwest Kenya.  I miss the yellow nothing of Ethiopia.
His assailants bind and gag him and finally leave him under the watch of a six year old boy named Michael to whom Deng tells his epic tale in his head, since he cannot actually speak.  The narrative structure effectively juxtaposes three time frames: the distant past in Sudan with its epic story, Deng's more recent past since coming to the U.S. which happens over a few years - even the worst of its events are more recognizable as everyday tragedies of Western life- and the present time in Atlanta during and immediately after the robbery.  If this were a staged drama, there would be one set - Deng's living room - a remarkably mundane, indoor, and intimate setting.  In it as he lies helpless, Deng's stories with their thousands of boys, lions, and dozens of settings would unfold before him and us as he relates them to a listener with a name "Michael."  In the drama, Michael justifies this character speaking aloud in his living room - a convention that, in our era of self-consciousness around artifice, helps the audience buy their way into the drama.  In the novel, Michael becomes the proxy for the reader.  I found this contrast of intimate and epic remarkably effective for delivering a vast and terrible story unfolding over years in a voice I wanted to listen to and accomplishing this within a few hours.  It was perfect dramatic storytelling.

Like the paragraph I excerpted above, this story could have been little more than a list of assaults Deng endured.  This literary form has become quite popular in America.  We seem to have endless hunger for narrative dramas made out of outrage for victimhood.  Victims seem almost to be our new heroes.  Victimhood (of illness, of attack) affords us status somehow - a shabby state of affairs if you ask me.  But this novel's structure makes the story one about resiliency - about finding meaning through making narrative.  A running joke in Deng's story is the number of names he acquires over the course of his escape and subsequent internment - Achak, Valentino, and Dominic - are all Deng's first name at different points in his tale.  That left me thinking that the Lost Boys of Sudan lost so many things. Then Deng comes to this new country of plenty and ends up on the floor, his hands bound, as his apartment is emptied of possessions.  But he has experienced so much in his life, he needs three selves to contain it all.  He may have nothing, but he is rich in selves and rich in the sense of meaning he has gained through telling his story.  We are fortunate that it is through telling his story that he can regain himself.  So I urge you to read What is the What to appreciate Deng not for his suffering but for his self-possession.

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