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Zeitoun – Dave Eggers

June 5, 2011

Many weeks ago, I finished this book by David Eggers called Zeitoun. Before having finished it, I wrote that there is a special place in the world of contemporary literature for a man like David Eggers. This is the second book of his that I have read, and I am quite certain that I will read more by the author in the future.

I remember reading What is the What? while doing my undergraduate degrees. It was a nice diversion from my studies, and I can recall being sucked into the storyline as much as I could possibly allow myself to be sucked into any novel at the time. It likely took me two or three weeks to finish the book because of the amount of time that I could commit to reading, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t enjoy it. In the end.

What is the What? struggled with the pacing, if I recall properly. There were some really, really painful experiences captured in the book. And captured vividly. But it was only during these moments that I was fully consumed by the power of the novel. I recall one scene, a robbery of Deng’s American home, that I found particularly frustrating and particularly frightening. Interesting, considering the majority of the novel was about Deng’s flashbacks to the Darfur/Sudan Genocide tragedy.

Zeitoun does not suffer from this pacing problem. Throughout you are drawn in. Right from the beginning I could tell that it was a special novel, though once again I couldn’t quite figure out why. The pacing was phenomenal, the dialogue fantastic, the characters thoroughly enjoyable. Zeitoun, the protagonist, is an immigrant from the middle east living in the city of New Orleans when Katriana starts to develop in the Gulf of Mexico. He sends his family away, but himself refuses to leave.

What is captured in the novel is the story of New Orleans’ destruction as a result of the storm. The physical world is recreated. It becomes a post-apocalyptic scene – buildings burning, people trapped. Tenuous relationships developing into dependencies, and then being lost. Throughout Zeitoun acts as a hero would – feeding animals that had been left behind by owners who expected to be back sooner rather than later. Getting Americans who needed to leave the city to aid stations. Helping some escape from their flooded homes. Zeitoun becomes a saint. This section of the novel is thrilling to read.

And then somebody arrives on Zeitoun’s doorstep, quite literally, and we don’t hear about him for more than 60 pages. We read about his wife’s distress. His wife is also a convincing character, with complicated family issues as a result of her conversion from Baptist Christianity to a Muslim. She finds that she does not have any people in her family upon which she can depend, she when she flees New Orleans she crosses the continent to meet with one of her lifelong friends, her children in tow.

As her world collapses, her anxiety rises, the pacing of this novel is at its peak. It adopts a psychological magnitude. The tragedy of New Orleans is clearly not just in its destruction of an entire city, or the thousands of lives lost, but also the lives and persons that were changed as a result. This character reveals this. And continues to do so through to the end of the book.

I do not want to give away anything else of this novel. I will tell you that it picks up with Zeitoun. I will tell you that it is in this moment that you become angrier at government than you likely ever thought possible. The post-apocalyptic world adopts a Hollywood-like control scheme that fails – a government trying to maintain control over a world that nobody can possibly control. And doing some terrifying things to accomplish this.

It seems as though Eggers’ greatest strength in literature may not be reporting about events around the world, but how the United States, his own government, must be indicted according to the crimes that exist here and the promises to Americans about America that are broken by other Americans. His aim is affirm the American dream and confront it with the American reality. And he does so with the vision of a journalist.

A journalist. Yes. This is what he is trained as. And it shows. Though his writing, his characters, his pacing is all top-notch, it is not literary. You read correspondences from the frontline of America, and they are short and thrilling and short again. It keeps the novel moving, but if you are looking for a story that is imbued with language that lights up the world with colours unimaginative, then i recommend you go elsewhere. Indeed, this style would not fit what he is writing. He is a journalist – what we are reading is essentially very long-form journalism with some liberties taken.

And this is the special place that Dave Eggers has in modern American literature. His dark world is not created by his words – you do not see this environment illustrated in the same way that you do with most other American authors. It is minimal. To the point. Your mind fills in the blanks. What is included though, the dialogue and characters, the events followed by other events. It is all very effective.

Zeitoun is an engrossing read. And it made me angry (I know I said this about Flowers for Algernon, but this is a particularly strong anger – and anger that I had forgotten about.). I imagine it will have the same affect on you if you choose to read the novel. Which I think you should.

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