Another heartbreaking work by Eggers

With the release of his first book, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” five years ago, Dave Eggers was presented with praise every writer dreams of but a minute number of writers achieve.With “What Is The What,” his fourth novel, Eggers sheds the skin of the white Americanmale he so fully utilizes in previous novels for that of Valentino Achak Deng, a member of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan – the name given to the approximately 20,000 Sudanese refugees who fled in the wake of civil war. The novel is the result of collaboration between Deng and Eggers, “born out of the desire … to reach out to others to help them understand the atrocities many successive governments of Sudan committed before and during the civil war,” stated the book’s preface.Deng’s oral history was shaped into what is deemed by Eggers as an autobiography, but in actuality closer to a novel with its fictionalized passages.Gone is the playful self-consciousness of Eggers’ previous work. In its place is a sincere attempt to infuse this portrait of a young man with humanity as Deng carefully recounts his journey through Sudan seeking refuge in Ethiopia, Kenya and finally, Atlanta, Ga.Leading the reader through brutal passages of agonizing detail is a voice that has known loss but not self-pity, strength but not anger. Particularly striking are the passages illustrating the horror Achak faces as a young boy: witnessing the murders of boys in his troupe and acknowledging the loss of his entire family. By crafting Achak’s story of an unfathomable journey and personal loss in the arresting style that has defined him. Eggers achieves a piece of art with a tone of activism.Eggers and Deng’s collaboration reaches American culture at a time when relationships between Americans and Africans have become “trendy,” as seen on the hips of certain celebrities.The issues of genocide and civil war in Sudan go largely unexplored in American culture outside of college campuses and a corner of The New York Times opinion page. If these venues remind us of horrific crimes against humanity, Achak’s story is the face of atrocity that is impossible to forget.The striking detail and compassion that defines Deng’s journey outside Sudan, and Eggers’ venture outside himself, exemplifies not only another artistic triumph for the author, but also the urgent need for contemporary American culture to reach outside itself.