Travis Nichols may not be able to tell the difference between a novel and a memoir (re: Heartbreaking), but I think he nails a major flaw in Dave Eggers: “[B]y telling Deng’s story in the identifiable manner of Team America, Eggers strips him of some of his Otherness in a way that leaves us asking: Can we feel charitable only toward people whose stories seem like our own? And if so, are we more interested in helping other people, or in flattering ourselves?”
I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong in telling a story in an accessible manner. I think there’s room for both baroque literary endeavors and books that function as “page-turners.”* But I do object to the idea that when one reads a book and one likes it, one immediately joins a team of unquestioning acolytes (the “Us” team that Nichols suggests in his first paragraph). This is quite possibly my only major objection to the Litblog Co-Op. The current atmosphere of championing books is a good one, but it sometimes leaves little room for points of contention or spirited (yet amicable) debate about a book’s flaws. I feel that my own enthusiasm has contributed somewhat to this atmosphere, and I have tried to offset this partisanship somewhat with my interviews, where I often ask challenging questions of the authors (even when I greatly admire the work in question).
In the case of Dave Eggers, however, I suspect this collective herd mentality is even more egregious. Where the LBC’s boosterism is in some ways accidental, Eggers has styled a more deliberately programmed “Us vs. Them” mentality. Eggers has consistently boasted about how all the What is the What sales will go to Valentino Achak Deng’s charitable foundation, and it’s a bit like observing a little boy constantly tugging on his mother’s sleeve every time he does a good deed. But I think Eggers, much like Eddie Vedder before him with Tibet, is attempting to set an example and act like a leader in which his followers act upon the same impulses. This is all fantastic if you are naive enough to believe that humans will understand goodness entirely by mimicry, but the problem with this approach is that I don’t think this allows the McSweeney’s acolytes to think actively and intricately about the Sudan situation on their own. It assumes, like a liberal attending a protest against Iraq greeted by pro-Palestine supporters who immediately assume that the liberal is on their side, that the person is on board completely for the cause. But skepticism, particularly when applied to one’s belief system, is a very important part of being a good thinker and, as such, a very important part of being a good reader.
If What is the What was written with all this in mind, then I’m wondering if this decreases the book’s literary worth. The collective mentality didn’t work well for Bolshevism and it certainly doesn’t work well for literature. (Witness for example how well the One Book, One City campaigns have done.) And it seems possible to me that some of the people cradling What is the What on the subway are doing so with the same eager zeal in which others have clutched Mao’s Little Red Book.
* A brief aside: I should note that I disagree with Jeff VanderMeer when he suggests that paragraphs used “merely to advance the story” are poorly constructed. Sometimes, a paragraph must bristle with nothing but emotional life. Consider, for example, Charlie Huston’s Caught Stealing: a novel in which nearly every paragraph is used to advance the story. If Huston had paused to embed what VanderMeer identifies as “intellectual life” within his paragraphs, then the book’s hard visceral thrust would have been lost. The protagonist’s spiral into the underworld must occur in a kind of half-formed, miasmal universe where both the protagonist and the reader don’t have a clue as to how the protagonist got there. Sometimes, fiction operating on pure emotion is the best mode with which to affect a mood. Small wonder then that “page-turners” are often dismissed by literary types because a term like “intellectual life” is more valued than an author’s ability to advance the story and thereby evoke mood in a way that books which concern themselves exclusively with “intellectual life” (Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle comes to mind) are sometimes incapable of.