Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

I thought I knew what happened during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. I thought I knew about racism in America and Muslims after 9/11 and George W. Bush’s obsession with trrrists. Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun states explicitly that it is not meant to be an all-encompassing history of Katrina — there’s no Superdome, no Lower 9th, no sound of levees breaking — but something powerful is gained by sticking with Mr. and Mrs. Zeitoun day after day as their nightmarish story unfurls. The plot twists are absurd, but only as absurd as the handling of that storm; only as absurd as human inhumanity when stress corrupts souls.

(Photo of Abdulrahman Zietoun by: Julie Dermansky/Polaris)

This story is remarkable not just for its events but for how it is told. It reads like a novel, with omniscience doled out and revoked to build empathy as the situation fits. Every scrap of the story is pulled from interviews and research, but Eggers writes mostly in a narrative voice, using quotes only when poetic or potent. The reader must trust that Eggers’s reporting is solid (an extensive bibliography follows the text) but once they do, they can sit like children at the feet of a master storyteller, their jaws slowly dropping to the floor. Sometimes something crazy happens to you and your friends, so you all have a crazy story. But even though the facts are the same, one friend might be best at laying them out so the audience is rapt. In Eggers’s hands, Zeitoun is a crazy story impeccably told.

Even things we’ve all heard before, like the pre-storm debates about whether to leave, the rooftop rescues, or pranks where teens yank off strangers’ hijabs, feel more nuanced and personal in this telling. It is the specificity that makes it universal; the intimacy that leaves readers enraged. A death toll over a hundred can roll off the reader’s back. A beloved pet, vulnerable to incompetence and hubris and weather, can strike for the heart.

Dave Eggers’s writing is spare and concise. It’s the kind of writing that makes novice authors worry that readers will misunderstand. But for attentive readers, it is more absorbing and informative than more wordy or technical prose:

“She couldn’t remember what her hand was supposed to be doing. She didn’t know how to write, or what to write, or where. She stared and stared at the checkbook; it became more foreign by the moment. She couldn’t identify the purpose of the checkbook on the counter or of the pen in her hand.”

Eggers could have thrown around technical terms like Post-Traumatic Stress, but by grounding readers in the process and minutiae he makes a more relatable and terrifying scene. This stands in contrast to Eggers’s first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which I’ve just started reading and might not finish because it takes itself so seriously and works hard for its images and generally reminds me of arty men from my school days who were really smart but couldn’t possibly leave it to chance that you’d discover on your own that they were really smart. I might not finish his first book, but it’s clear that Eggers has honed his raw talent and he can only get better. Future Eggers could be unstoppable.

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