What Is The What by Dave Eggers


I have not, for a very long time, read a book that has made me need to take a deep breath and have a good old cry at the end of it, a book that has had me weeping---and yet simultaneously laughing, I kid you not---through the last fifty pages, a book that I have forced myself to ration out even as I tore through it, desperately dreading the moment it would come to an end. I think the last book I read like this was The Namesake by Jumpha Lahiri or perhaps Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, and still, even then, I don't think either of them managed to have quite the effect on me as this one: What Is The What by Dave Eggers.

This book sat on my bedside table for a year and two months, after Sean bought it for me for my TWENTY SEVENTH birthday (in case you're not counting, I turned twenty eight in February). I'd wanted to read it, yes, but only in a sort of vague, peripheral way; although I'd very much enjoyed Dave Eggers' short short stories every week in The Guardian, I'd found myself surprisingly disappointed by A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius, which I'd thought brilliant at first, and then increasingly self-conscious, precious, pointless, and forced. While my hopes had been resurrected a year or two later with You Shall Know Our Velocity, which turned out to be one of my top ten favorite books of all time--well, top twenty at least---I still didn't harbor any particular hope for What Is The What. It sounded interesting, sure, but I am fickle and lazy, and one of my character flaws is that I far prefer to find a new book at the library than start one of the several unopened ones sitting on my bookshelf or bedside table.

And then I started this one and couldn't stop.

If you are looking for something to read, I cannot recommend it enough. I know how some people feel about Dave Eggers---that he's overrated, that his prose is overwrought---but in this case, with this book, I have to disagree. It's amazing. It's almost perfect. It's the best thing I've read in at least the last twelve months, and like all magnificent books, it bears the hallmark of a truly good read: when you finally come to the end of a book like this, you are, for a good few hours at least, not entirely sure how you'll go on.


Apr 07, 2008

You have lured me out of lurkerdom with this review to say that I agree with you wholeheartedly. I recommend this book to every one I can think of. I'm glad you're doing it, too, the recommending.

Apr 08, 2008

I've been avoiding reading this one because of my distrust of the Cult of Eggers, but you're about the third person who has said it was amazing, so maybe I'm cheating myself out of a good read. (The last great cry I had with a book was Edwidge Danticat's Brother I'm Dying. Five hours after I'd put it down, I was still breaking down into a messy ball of weep.)

Apr 08, 2008

Considering the two fabulous books you're comparing this to, it's now top of my to-read list - I loved both of those other two so much.
I've never read any Dave Eggers before, though I've meant to.

Apr 08, 2008

What you said about Heartbreaking is precisely what I said on your Flickr photos when I saw it (before I saw this, as I read you on Reader). Precious, I think, is same word that I conjured, for that's EXACTLY IT. I wanted to slap him, and because of it -- because of that one book he wrote years ago -- I have been annoyed by Eggers for years. Perhaps I should get over it.

Apr 08, 2008

I just want to say that your description of Heartbreaking Work..is spot on. I started with a grin and ended with a frown. But if you say What is the What is better, I'll give it a try.

Terri B.
Apr 08, 2008

I really liked this book too. I thought the author was pretty much invisible throughout, which is quite unlike Eggers' other work.

Apr 08, 2008

I seem to be in the minority here, as someone who really liked A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. A friend of mine was reading it and liked it, so I picked it up one day at the used bookstore (this was a few years ago) and read it. What I liked about it was that it's candid; and I think that's what I like about Eggers in general. That said, I've not yet had a chance to read What is the What. But it is on my list.

Apr 09, 2008

You can tell that you need to purchase said book when, after reading this entry, you flip over to Amazon, read the excerpt and then spend all morning the next day thinking "when I'm done unloading the dishwasher/making the bed/etc., I can go read some more of that great book! Oh wait, I don't actually own that book yet...." I'm going to the library today!

Also, Holly, have you seen the movie "God Grew Tired of Us"? Documentary on some of the men who came, like Valentino, from Kakuma to the US. Excellent.

Thanks for the recommendation!

Kerri Anne
Apr 11, 2008

You Shall Know Our Velocity punched me in the face with its unexpected combination of raw emotion and detached storytelling. It was an instant favorite of mine, too.

Apr 12, 2008

Hmmm, I had been mulling over which one to buy first, but I think you just made my decision for me.