What is the What?

What is the What? Another Literary Blog Post

Apr 27, 2020

I often woke in the morning thinking I was in my own bed, and it would take me a moment before I realized that I was not at home, that I would not be at home again for some time, if at all.  – Dave Eggers, What is the What

As this drags on, I am beginning to worry.

I am beginning to wonder if we are going to become refugees in our own land.  If so, what will happen to us?  Where will we go, how will we move forward, and how many will be left behind?  Maybe it’s just that I’m given towards dystopian thoughts and a post-apocalyptic imagination these days; perhaps we are really headed for a disaster of the size and scale that we can’t even grapple with in our first world musings. So hard to know.

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In either case, in any case, this week I’m talking about a book that is so amazingly well written that it makes me smile, even in the midst of this growing crisis.  The book is called What is the What, and it’s written by Dave Eggers, the brilliant mind behind some other seminal creations like A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. 

This book follows the life story of a boy from Sudan.  His name is Valentino Achak Deng (with the Valentino being a later addition).  This boy was orphaned at the age of six, and forced to fend for himself after a marauding band of raiders attacked his village, and he hid in a bag of grain long enough to escape.

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Valentino’s journey takes him across Africa, marching with a ragtag band of so-called Lost Boys, searching for a safe place to stop and start their lives.  Eggers tells the story in Valentino’s voice, and it’s a tale of such staggering courage that I can’t help but smile every time I read the book.

How many times have I read the book?

I’m going to go with three times, since I did re-read most of it over the past few days before I wrote this post.  There are sections in the book that literally make me cry on a good day, and while we are stuck in this insane situation that’s basically destroying the world as we know it, of course the book makes me cry even harder.  It’s very easy to find potential parallels between this kid’s life and the lives of a lot of other kids who are going to be affected by this craziness, and who will never manage to accomplish anything near what their potential would have suggested just a few short weeks ago.

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In case you are wondering, yes, I am really struggling today.  I have a growing sense of dread, and I’m not really sure how to make people understand that the effects of all this are not going to be felt right away – it isn’t like an atomic bomb landed on the entire world; that these effects are going to become a slow build that starts to pick up steam as if we are watching a set of dominoes that are beginning to smash into each other more rapidly with each passing second.

And for everything that takes a few weeks to shut off – like readily available food – it’s going to take at least twice that to get things moving again and that is predicated on the raw materials being available to start processing again.  What does that mean?  Well, if farmers are forced to destroy their livestock instead of bringing it to market for processing, then how long will it take and how much readily available piglets and calves and so on are there going to be?  This is a problem.

Enough with the doom and gloom.

True.  I’m just having one of those days when things are so far up in the air that I can’t even see them flying around any more.  But we all know that what goes up must come down.  So there’s that.  If we don’t allow people to go back to work, to open their businesses, then they don’t get even half a chance to keep from losing everything they have worked for over the years.


Just read the book already and let me know what you think of it!  I don’t do comments here but you can drop in on my Insta and tell me all about it –


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