06 April 2007

Eggers, Dave. What is the What. San Francisco: McSweeney's, 2006.

Eliot's objective correlative is, oh, eighty years old or so, and from what I understand it demands that writers find concrete ways of evoking the abstract. To write "We loved each other" is to create nothing in the head of the reader but an empty idea. In order for the reader to feel this love, it needs to be expressed through an object or some action. "We spent our time apart flipping though catalogues for pointless things to buy one another," is a poor but adequate example.

I was reminded of the objective correlative this week while reading this book, and but like I've been trying to put into words a kind of post-global revisiting of the idea. It's something like this: To talk about cultures or nations as cultures or nations does nothing for the reader foreign to those cultures or nations. In order for the reader to understand the foreign it has to be embodied in the personal: the story of a life.

No duh, right? I'm not trying to present these ideas as groundbreaking. I think the most interesting this behind them, and behind this book in general, is that the title page reads "What is the What / the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng / A novel / Dave Eggers". No autobiographies are novels, right? Why not write autobiography? Why not write pop political nonfiction?

As a novel this book accomplishes its aims—which are, sure, didactic and maybe even preachy...or maybe I'll say it's in the interest of "raising awareness"—far better than a nonfiction book on the Sudanese civil war ever could. We care about people and not issues; it's the human-like form of the fetus that impels the pro-lifer to carry signs outside Planned Parenthoods. It's hard to hate and vote against gays after someone close to you comes out.

Fiction as a form employs point of view in a manner that no other form can match. What keeps me reading novels is the way such a fundamental but complicated literary technique can orient my thinking in paths it wouldn't go on its own.


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