Friday, October 22, 2010

Read On! Zeitoun

(Read On! ... occasional posts on writing we're reading)

Feel a bit late to the table commenting on Zeitoun, the 2009 book by Dave Eggers. Blurbs on and in the paperback edition indicate that a host of reviews named it a best book of last year. Yet it's new to me, and worth a word or 2.
In Zeitoun Eggers writes at the overlap of fiction and nonfiction, novelizing the "true story" of persons whom he's interviewed extensively. It's a technique he also employed in What Is the What (2007), an epic biographical novel/autobiography of a man who'd been a Lost Boy during the war in Southern Sudan. Zeitoun is slimmer and makes no claim to autobiography; in this author's humble opinion, the newer book works less well, and perhaps that is one reason why.
(Eggers deserves much credit for his Voice of Witness efforts to publish stories of victims of human rights violations, and for his establishment of charities, like The Zeitoun Foundation, to continue his books' good works.)
The new book's principal characters are the Zeitouns, a Syrian-born husband of Arab heritage and his Louisiana-born wife of European heritage. Their home is New Orleans. Both are Muslims --he by birth, she by conversion shortly before meeting him -- and both suffered during and after Hurricana Katrina.
Eggers tries to present the story through the eyes of this couple, but the narrational voice remains his own. Thus at times certain passages, like that which attributes to the wife a reference to Islam, Judaism, and Christianity as "not-so-distantly related branches of the same monotheistic Abrahamic faith" (p. 66), lack an authentic ring.
Perhaps it's because of the Eggers' apparent outrage at how the couple were treated. That outrage is entirely appropriate, but his desire to explain the couple and their family, to contextualize their experience, occasionally gets in the way of their story. To name another example: even if it had been made far less overtly, caring contemporary readers would get the Guantánamo comparison that underlay the husband's travails and his wife's traumatic response to them.
That said, any caring reader will profit from pondering the story of the Zeitouns. It is, as Eggers recognizes, inevitably a story of contemporary policy and practice regarding human and national security.

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