Francine Prose on the new Eggers novel

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Francine Prose reviews, with glowing praise, What is the What, the new novel by Dave Eggers in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review.

The lyricism, the detail and, most important, the absolute specificity of these sentences are what make “What Is the What” so persuasive. It’s a real high-wire act, yet Eggers manages to maintain this level of intensity throughout the book as Achak and the other Lost Boys encounter minefields and massacres, loneliness and fear, starvation, disease, predatory wild animals, the seemingly endless varieties of cruelty, the sustenance of fellowship and the surprising manifestations of instinctive human kindness. What’s remarkable is that, given its harrowing subject matter, the book isn’t simply horrifying or depressing. The considerable appeal of Valentino’s personality and the force of Eggers’s talent turn this eyewitness account of a terrible tragedy into a paradoxically pleasurable experience.

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Reading “What Is the What” does indeed make it impossible to pretend that Valentino Achak Deng and the other Lost Boys and all the men and women and children who have suffered, and continue to suffer, fates like his do not exist. Dave Eggers has made the outlines of the tragedy in East Africa — so vague to so many Americans — not only sharp and clear but indelible. An eloquent testimony to the power of storytelling, “What Is the What” is an extraordinary work of witness, and of art.

Eggers and Deng are also interviewed in this week’s NYT Book Review podcast.

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