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How Nice!

April 19, 2007

In an article originally appearing in The New Republic, cross-posted on Powell’s, Lee Siegel considers Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s, and What is the What:

First, on the problem with Eggers and McSweeney’s:

The assumptions of A Heartbreaking Work were that fantasy is co-extensive with reality, that making stuff up is fine if it preserves your trueheartedness. But these assumptions collapse in What Is the What — or, rather, they are routed by its subject. The encounter between Eggers’s small sly ethos and a genocidal historical event is a messy collision between childhood and reality; between whimsical, self-protective artistic license and a situation where life and death are balanced on the difference between truth and falsehood.

Finally, on the failures of What is the What speciffically:

Eggers means well, he means well, he means well — you cannot say it enough times. You do not need to convince me that he wrote the book for no other reason than to move people to action with Deng’s story. But Eggers is a creature of the culture that he helped to create. He is a creature of the McSweeneyite confusion of good intentions with good art, and of its blithe elision — partly pioneered by Eggers himself in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius — of truth with untruth, prevarication with pretense.

The worst aspect of What Is the What — the title refers to a Sudanese proverb warning against the unknown — is that Deng’s attitudes are tyrannically refracted through Eggers’s reshaping of them. Deng does not represent himself. Eggers represents him. You never know whether the startling self-pity that Deng occasionally displays — when two other boys are eaten by lions, Deng laments his unluckiness — is his own or not. In Deng’s own voice, these flashes from the underside of his ego might have been extenuated by irony or self-awareness. The same goes for Deng’s hostile, suspicious, sometimes contemptuous attitudes toward American blacks. They might have been somehow vindicated in the full-throated revelation of his personality. Or maybe not. We will never know. In Eggers’s hands, the survivor’s voice does not survive.

I strongly recommend reading the full review.

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