Joy Luck Book Club: <i>What is the What</i>

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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…

Reading Rainbow!

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.

jolieThe 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.

eggers dengWith 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.

questionableIt 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)

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  1. wait

    you guys aren't really class of '11 ? permit me if the article explains this, but i didn't actually read it.

  2. late

    i happened on AHWOFG after the hype had long died...the bathos was overwhelming at times, but eggers' humor really redeemed it for me.

  3. ZvS

    I thought "What is the What" was terrific, myself... I loved Heartbreaking Work, and I liked Velocity, although it's uneven and all the revisions between editions sort of turned me off. But he felt out of the groove. How We Are Hungry sounded like high school, almost.

    I was really surprised that a book like this, which sounds like it could be... y'know, trite and annoying... was actually fantastic. You can tell he's back on track, thank God...

  4. Anonymous

    I don't know if I can trust a bookclub that is not even a little skeptical of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

    • Definitely true

      Yeah, I'm surprised people aren't a little put-off by the whole concept of this thing, which I find completely nauseating.

      Heartbreaking work... I thought okay, but the story was severely tarnished by all the Eggers' in it. Really it only worked as an autobiography. Of course so is What is the What which might make it tolerable, unlike Eggers' other attempts at fiction.

  5. rjt

    Backlash against Heartbreaking Work is as stupid and uninteresting as backlash against anything "indie" that gets big. It's great, as is most of How We Are Hungry, especially the first story in it.

  6. well

    AHWOSG is due some backlash for the fact that it was never that great a book in the first place. Actually, it's a great story, great presentation, fairly well written, and I won't say it shouldn't be considered a good book, but it's biggest problem is Eggers' pandering. It's a good book though.

  7. Commenter 6  

    In defense of Eggers, it's not like he's the only obnoxious heartbroken 'genius' out there, so his theatricals didn't come out of nowhere.

  8. take

    take AHWOSG for what it is...let it self-depricate and lower your standards accordingly...screw the hype

  9. Angelina

    Jolie was seen carrying this book around. As a matter of principle, I refuse to read it now.


    AAAHHHHHHH! I'm dying here! I don't even have a name to describe the error in this sentence; it's so painful to behold.

    The sentimental subject matter indicates to previously unaware readers of Eggers's stumbling-block - his earnestness.

  11. chill

    the sentence only needs to lose its "of" to be perfectly fine...how about a little benefit of the doubt for the silly college blog...it's a typo [i think "Eggers's" can go either way, depending on who you ask]

  12. DPD

    Grammatical error fixed.

  13. Ugh  

    I hate when people rag on something just because a lot of people like it. Here's the thing: AHWOSG is popular because it's a good book. That's it.

  14. what the...  

    okay: clarify for me, dan. how is the sudanese lost boys story a 'sentimental subject matter'? and it would be nice if you both talked a bit more about the books rather than how you feel about author or hype. the dave eggers debate/backlash is so 2001.

    • DPD

      The novel is less about the Lost Boys' story than about the specific story of Valentino Achak Deng. By using a deliberately simplified voice and presenting the events of his life in an effective but emotionally manipulative way (e.g., Valentino's long wait to leave the refugee camp in Kenya), Eggers sentimentalizes a story that easily could have been presented in a variety of other ways (political, for instance, if it had focused on the Lost Boys en masse, as you imply).

      Was that answer 2007 enough for you?

  15. what the...  

    well, at least yr answer deals w/ the book's merits or lack thereof. and not about something that's been hashed over & hacked to death for years. but yr answer still seems weak & insufficient to me. following the life of a single person caught in a historical/political strife is NOT a sentimental/'emotionally manipulative' narrative strategy. then what would you say to coetzee's fiction? to sebald's memoir/essay/fiction? in fact, it is probably the best way to carry a fictional narrative (as d.e. also admits he filled in the gaps w/ research & his own material). i can think of fictional narratives that have been told in the ways suggest that turned out pretty lame, in the long run, actually. some of brecht's work have not aged well, for example.

    • DPD

      Er, I'm not "suggesting" another way for Eggers to tell his story, nor have I read Brecht or Coetzee(though from what I've heard, I wouldn't place Eggers in their league). I'm also not saying that the technique of following a single character is, in itself, sentimental - rather, it's Eggers's VOICE that has that effect. Not that being sentimental is necessarily negative, but over the course of 500 pages, Deng's voice began to grate.

      In Columbia creative writing class terms, it's style in question here, not structure (as you allege).

  16. what the...  

    got it. i'll look forward to yr future posts, d.

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