A Heartbreaking Work of Fiction

Dave Eggers
Dave Eggers with Valentino Achak Deng, one of the "Lost Boys," whose fictionalized story Eggers tells. "Dave is an artist," Deng says. "I'm not only about myself in the book." (Michael Robinson Chavez - The Washington Post)

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By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Here are a few things we can say for sure about Dave Eggers's latest book:

It's not a satire of political correctness in the English department of an elite liberal arts college. No publisher is betting that it will be "the next 'Da Vinci Code.' " Judith Regan had nothing to do with it.

Oh, and it's a safe bet that Eggers didn't consult any marketing types about the title.

He called it "What Is the What."

Which means --

Well, maybe we should save that for later. Because right now the writer best known for his arrestingly titled memoir "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" is sitting in a newspaper conference room with Valentino Achak Deng, the Sudanese "Lost Boy" whose life story he's undertaken to tell. And he's talking about one thing readers of "What Is the What" can't say for sure: How much is fact and how much is fiction.

Why the line-blurring? The explanation goes like this: Introduced to Deng in early 2003 and deeply engaged by his story, Eggers set out to write a conventional biography. But he kept getting stuck.

"I didn't know how to do it," he says. "I didn't want my own voice in there."

Despairing, he was ready to give the whole thing up. Then it occurred to him that "all the books that we remember about war and about the biggest events of the 20th century are novels." Think of "The Naked and the Dead," "Catch-22" and "all Hemingway's stuff."

More important, think of the ways fictionalizing Deng's story could solve narrative problems. 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.

There was only one hitch.

"I was so afraid to ask Valentino," Eggers says.


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