To be your own most famous and enduring character is the fate of any talented memoirist; to escape it is how you prove yourself as a novelist. Whether this prompted Eggers’s decision to rework the material as fiction is something only he can answer—whatever the reason, the results are stunning. What Is the What is a portrait of a character that forces us to examine our world and ourselves, and how our struggle for identity is more of a collective battle than we’re often willing to admit. For all the bleak territory covered, the novel is also a reminder that remembering is both a form of sacrifice and salvation. To forget, Valentino says, “would be something less than human.”
What Is the What
By Dave Eggers. McSweeney’s. 386 pages.