Thursday, April 19, 2007

The best part is also the biggest problem

Lee Siegel dissects Dave Eggers' What is the What in The New Republic. (via

I've long had an issue with Eggers' inexplicable decision to write his subject's "autobiography" as a novel. When the facts are so important and so powerful, why invent? There's precedent for the "nonfiction novel," why not head more in that direction? Siegel seems to share many of my concerns, and gives them a framework:
And Eggers's book is also another unsettling thing. I never thought I would reach for this vocabulary, but What Is the What's innocent expropriation of another man's identity is a post-colonial arrogance—the most socially acceptable instance of Orientalism you are likely to encounter. Perhaps this is the next stage of American memoir. Perhaps, having run out of marketable stories to tell about ourselves, we will now travel the world in search of desperate people willing to rent out their lives, the way indigent people in some desolate places give up their children. Perhaps we have picked our psyches clean, and now we need other people's stories the way we need other people's oil.

One of the best parts of the writing in the McSweeney's circle is their dissatisfaction with everyday American experience, and their drive to expand that experience to include those whose lives aren't so safe and pampered. Often this is done through travel, and has led to writing that I view as spiritual heir to the early 20th century American expatriates. I find expatriate writing fascinating, but both the writer and the reader are obligated to realize that the experience of the expatriate is only a half-step removed from that of the tourist. The expatriate has a unique and worthwhile perspective, but isn't really a participant in the events and history that surrounds him, and so will always have a view slightly skewed and slightly removed. (Hemingway is an outstanding example of both sides of this argument.) They can be reporters and witnesses, but there is real danger if they start to believe that they can speak for those who surround them.

An excellent, sensitive and yet incisive review. A good read with a good point. Check it out.

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