A month or so ago, Nitro wrote a nice overview of the Dave Eggers book What is the What. I won’t repeat her glowing review, which I thought was spot on. I will, however, add this: I went back through my old Believer magazines from 2004 and found the original serialization of what, at the time, was going to be a “biography”- titled “It was Just Boys Walking” (three portions were published in the March, April, and May editions of the mag) – and only later became the “fictional autobiography,” What is the What.
It is a fascinating glimpse into the origin of what would later become a much different book. In the serialized piece, Valentino still goes by the name Dominic Arou (explained in What is the What). The original concept of the book appears to be a narrative that switches back and forth between Eggers journey to Sudan with Valentino/Dominic and Valentino’s story. The pieces with Eggers along for the ride reads almost like a third world travelogue.
As written in these Believer articles, Eggers is prominent on almost every page, if only to provide a western background to the history, explain the politics, or highlight how different the whole experience is from our lives. The genius of What is the What is that Dave Eggers disappears entirely and only Valentino’s story remains.
What blows my mind is that it appears that at some point over this three month process Eggers decided that this book was going to be crap – and he scrapped the whole thing and started over. I won’t argue with him. The man is one of my favorite authors, and this series of articles, while interesting, does not provide anywhere near the experience of reading the “fictional autobiography.” The man knows what he is doing. He apparently trusts himself enough to know when it is time to just start over.
How hard is it to do that – throw away months (years?) of work if you intuit that it just might be done better another way? I don’t know, but it will be the question that I ask Mr. Eggers when I see him read (with Valentino) on Sunday night.
If you’re near the Atlanta metro area this weekend, cancel whatever you thought that you were going to do on Sunday night and come to this reading. It’s at the Center for Southern Literature (CSL) at the Margaret Mitchell House (MMH). An author’s reception begins at 6, the reading starts at 7. Since the novel focuses heavily on Valentino’s time here in Atlanta, I expect that there will be several of the Atlanta Sudanese Lost Boy community at the reading that are sure to provide additional perspective. Sadly, the reading is not free, nor do we have any books to give away for this one. Admission is $10, well worth it for this one, I say. Proceeds benefit the upkeep of the MMH (I think). At any rate, the CSL usually has free eats during the reception and a cash bar. You can reserve a spot (it may sell out) here.
Also: The title has been described elsewhere as “worst ever” – it actually makes total sense int he context of the book. It takes its name from a Sudanese creation myth. Just thought you should know.
Also: I’ve been fooling around with using Google Earth lately to check out geographic areas that I know nothing about while I’m reading about them. Below is a picture of the general area where Valentino’s village Marial Bai is located. See if you can find anything that remotely looks like civilization: