The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Monday, November 19, 2007


I think Dave Eggers gets a bad rap. He's too often seen as uber-ironic, hipster, precious in that BELIEVER way, but I just don't buy it. Yes, A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS really has come to stand for a particular kind of late-90's hipster attitude, and YOU SHALL KNOW OUR VELOCITY was slight, but I've been paying a little bit of attention to his recent projects (the reading education rooms in SF, LA, and Brooklyn, for example) and I heard him talk quite credibly about education at the CCCC conference a couple of years back, and although I kinda want not to like him I just can't do it. So I was interested in his most recent book, WHAT IS THE WHAT, a novelized autobiography of the Sudanese "Lost Boy" Valentino Achak Deng.

It's an impressive and genuinely moving book. As many reviewers have remarked, Eggers' voice is so knowing, so postmodern, so snarky-yet-earnest that it would seem impossible for him to lose it, but judging from this book he really is able to--which speaks well for his staying-power as a writer. The structure is really interesting. Throughout, Deng is located in the present in Atlanta, where he is being robbed, then waiting forever at an urban emergency room, then working at a health club, but while waiting in those places he narrates his long backstory, from an idyllic "primitive" (Deng has no problem using that word to describe his upbringing) childhood to years of nightmarish flight from war and starvation and wild animals to arrival and culture-shock in the US. It's angering without being angry: a tough task for Eggers and Deng to pull off. I'm definitely going to use it in my immigrant-lit class in the spring. And I'm going to try to get a speaker (perhaps Deng himself) to come, arranging it through the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation.



  • At 1:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I also think his short short stories are interesting.

  • At 9:12 AM, Blogger zp said…

    Not on this topic, but have you seen, do you think you'll see the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men?


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