Part of me wonders whether I read Dave Egger's What is the What so quickly because I really truly liked it, or because I felt like a tremendous asshole whenever I put it down.
What is the What: the Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng is the fictional but not really fictional re-telling of the life of a former Sudanese "Lost Boy" named Valentino. Valentino's life in Sudan is a relentless parade of sorrow and horror. If he's not seeing the young men around him starve to death and then get picked apart by vultures, he's seeing them snatched up by lions or drowning in rivers. The book switches back and forth between this adolescence and his new life in America, which is only slightly less sorrow and horror-filled.
Though Valentino's story is inspiring, it gets lost in the gimmick of the novel. Dave Eggers can't write Valentino like a fictional character because Valentino Achak Deng isn't a character, he's a living person. Obviously Eggers can't know all of Deng's inner thoughts, and the result is a novel with an amazing story that's written very dryly. I walked away knowing some of the most important moments of Deng's life, but still felt like I really didn't know anything about him as a person.
What is the What is the kind of novel that wants to change your life but, without that personal connection to the protagonist, just doesn't work. Valentino's story is an amazing one, but in the end I couldn't help thinking that it deserves more.