What is the What


In the preface to the novel, Deng writes: "Over the course of many years, Dave and I have collaborated to tell my story... I told [him] what I knew and what I could remember, and from that material he created this work of art."[1]

In this manner, the book is typical of Eggers' style: blending non-fictional and fictional elements into a non-fiction novel or memoir. By labeling the book a novel, Eggers says, he freed himself to re-create conversations, streamline complex relationships, add relevant detail and manipulate time and space in helpful ways—all while maintaining the essential truthfulness of the storytelling.[2]

However not all critics were impressed. Lee Siegel sees as much of Dave Eggers in the novel as Deng, unable to tell the two apart, saying[3] "How strange for one man to think that he could write the story of another man, a real living man who is perfectly capable of telling his story himself—and then call it an autobiography."

Questions of "expropriation of another man's identity" were addressed by Valentino Achak Deng and Dave Eggers in a discussion about the division between the speaker and the spoken for.[4] After Eggers was approached with the idea, preparation for the novel began. He says that at this point "we really hadn’t decided whether I was just helping Valentino write his own book, or if I was writing a book about him." Valentino points out that "I thought I might want to write my own book, but I learned that I was not ready to do this. I was still taking classes in basic writing at Georgia Perimeter College." Dave Eggers echoes the difficulties in writing a book of this nature: "For a long while there, we continued doing interviews, and I gathered the material. But all along, I really didn’t know exactly what form it would finally take—whether it would be first person or third, whether it would be fiction or nonfiction. After about eighteen months of struggle with it, we settled on a fictionalized autobiography, in Valentino’s voice." Eggers explains that this choice was made because "Valentino’s voice is so distinct and unforgettable that any other authorial voice would pale by comparison. Very early on, when the book was in a more straightforward authorial voice, I missed the voice I was hearing on the tapes. So writing in Val's voice solved both problems: I could disappear completely, and the reader would have the benefit of his very distinct voice."

The Ohio State University selected the novel as one of two choices for the freshmen book club, distributing thousands of copies, in 2007.[5] Duke University required the incoming Class of 2012 to read the novel, praising its literary merit.[6] The University of Maryland chose it as their freshman book in 2009. Macalester College required all incoming freshmen to read it in 2011. The University of Maine required first-year students in its Honors College to read the novel in 2012.

The novel inspired some of the lyrics from David Byrne and Brian Eno's Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.[7]

Tom Tykwer plans to adapt the novel into a film.[8]

In 2009, the novel received the Prix Médicis étranger in France.

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