Joy Luck Book Club: <i>What is the What</i>
Written by Bwog Staff
Previously, on the Joy Luck Book Club: Marisha Pessl’s merits as author and as hottie were debated. In this week’s episode, certified hottie Dave Eggers presents What is the What, and the J.L.B.C. convenes, gin cocktails in hand, to their secret clubhouse somewhere in the outer boroughs…
Dan: Dave Eggers is famous for two things: the painfully earnest magazine McSweeney’s and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a wonderful book that I can barely recall. (That’s the one with the brother and The Real World audition, right?) What is the What represents both a return to the literary spotlight and something of a return to form for Eggers – after two little-read works of fiction, he’s once again bending genres with a novelized autobiography told by Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee.
The sentimental subject matter indicates to previously unaware readers Eggers’s stumbling-block – his earnestness. Valentino undergoes struggles that would seem ludicrous were they not, you know, real, and has about him a superhuman innocence. However, the reader grows more and more involved in Valentino’s story as the novel continues, and he begins to seem less cloying, more real. (An instance where he wonders if his friend’s death will attract as much publicity as Princess Diana’s is unexpectedly touching, for instance.) What is the What showcases one of Eggers’s great strengths: a remarkable ability to tell a story a distinct voice, even one that is not his own.
What about you, Lucy? Were you pleased to see Dave Eggers telling a story that can be endorsed by Angelina Jolie, or do you wish he’d go back to playing Frisbee with Toph?
Lucy: My relationship with Dave Eggers has been pretty abusive. I really thought we clicked with AHWOSG; even today, I am not ashamed to deem it one of my favorite books (even with the extreme hype and backlash). Then after he earned my trust, he started to jerk me around, knowing that I would remain foolishly loyal. Even though I couldn’t even finish How We are Hungry, and was disappointed by You Shall Know Our Velocity, I was still a total Dave Eggers fangirl.
With his most recent foray into literature, I can finally rave about Dave Eggers without accusations of buying into the McSweeney’s hype. What is the What proves that Dave Eggers can write well about a topic that’s not himself. It is impossible to discern Eggers’ voice in What is the What, gone are the self-deprecating attitude, the long-winded stream of consciousness, and the snark. What is the What does for Eggers what his two previous works failed to do, it cements his reputation as an author by demonstrating his ability to move beyond his personal voice.
That said, I still prefer Eggers mulling over Toph’s sexual orientation.
Dan: Even though I agree with everything you said, I would add that it’s almost as though Eggers is all too aware of his reputation as a literary pranks ter, and is veering too far in the opposite direction. While I respected What is the What a great deal and I feel like I learned a lot while reading it, I didn’t love it.
It was literary roughage. You really SHOULD read it, for its lovely if subdued prose and for the story it tells. But I miss the old Eggers somewhat – he seems to have sublimated himself so far into Valentino Achak Deng that no irony or elegance peeks through. I’m glad I know as much about Sudan as Angie now, but around page 200 of the emigration from Sudan, I began to wonder if Eggers could import a bit more staggering genius into his heartbreaking tale. (Ha ha ha!) Valentino Achak Deng himself is clearly a lovely and fascinating man, if not quite as fascinating as Eggers himself at the height of his powers. I wouldn’t blame you, though, if you reached for an old McSweeney’s compilation first.
Also, Lucy, now that I have at least a vague idea of what the what is, I’d like to answer that other great Eggers question: what is the sexuality of Toph.
Lucy: A Frisbee-Tossing Work of Stumbling Gayness.
Kidding, I love Toph Eggers (whatever his sexual orientation may be), and not just because I have a penchant for little boys (though he’s not so little anymore, score!). Our affection for Toph after so many years just shows the brilliance of Eggers’ debut.
As hard as Dave Eggers tries, he will never escape himself. AHWOSG established his identity so strongly that it’s sad not to hear him ramble on for pages about his own insecurities. Now that McSweeney’s is bankrupt, maybe Eggers will once again revel in self-deprecation. I can only hope…
In our next installment, we’ll discuss Haruki Murakami’s After Dark. Until then, we remain-
-The Joy Luck Book Club (Lucy Tang ’11, Daniel D’Addario ’11)