The Year of Reading Dangerously – Dave Eggers
Thinking about David Shields’ proposal that non-fiction is the new literature sent me searching through my book shelves for other writers who seem to share this view. The example of Dave Eggers is a striking one: few writers can be hipper than Eggers, who seems to have left his early experimental work (which did, after all, begin with a memoir) for stories solidly rooted in fact. He is an auteur who now spends his time making documentaries. This decision appears to be a moral rather than artistic one, but this in itself links it to Shields’ idea that non-fiction is somehow more ‘real’ than fiction.
Eggers’ latest book, Zeitoun, is about one family’s experience in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It is quite clearly billed as non-fiction (though its predecessor, What is the What, which I thought was created under similar circumstances, is listed under the ‘fiction’ heading of his bibliography inside) and described more than once in the endorsements both front and back as ‘narrative non-fiction’. What this seems to mean is that it tells a ‘true’ story (getting a little fed up of the quotation marks myself now) in the style of a novel. This means that the focus is on the experience of the individual; interior life is as important as exterior life; there is a lot of dialogue, most of it not concerned with imparting information; and that the narrative is structured beginning to end but with numerous character-creating flashbacks and even the use of a cliff-hanger.
Characterisation is probably the main component that differentiates the book from other factual accounts of Hurricane Katrina. The opening section, the build up towards the storm, is also concerned with building a picture of the two central characters, Zeitoun and his wife Kathy. It seems likely (though whom am I to say) that these individuals might be described as atypical. Zeitoun (his surname, but generally used to refer to him) is originally from Syria; Kathy is an American who has converted to Islam. Both have the kind of interesting back stories that one would expect from a novelist, and Eggers uses these in the opening section of the book to make us care about what happens to them. We learn of Zeitoun’s childhood in Syria, Kathy’s previous marriage and her conversion, how they met and decided to marry, the decorating company they run together. Does this make them more ‘real’? Perversely, it does not.
Partly this is the suspicion that they are appearing as they would like to be seen. True, Eggers is not suggesting they are perfect – but nor do they have any obvious faults. Perhaps this is because they have final editing rights, or because the story is being told from their point of view, or maybe it is simply that Eggers likes them. Whatever the reason, their life off the page prevents them from living on the page. This in turn leads to Eggers adopting a style that can only be described as bland:
“Kathy was a mess. Stories like this just wrecked her.”
Is this Eggers mimicking the register of his character? What then are we to make of Zeitoun waking up surrounded by water:
“He felt strangely lethargic, ethereally content.”
Or the description of the camp where Zeitoun will be imprisoned as “entirely martial”. At the most extreme points of his story (Zeitoun is arrested without charge and imprisoned without being allowed a phone call – Kathy assumes he is dead) Zeitoun’s point of view either disappears or is strangely muted. When he is first picked up by soldiers we are told:
“Zeitoun was not panicking.”
When he is attacked by soldiers on arrival at the camp, his consciousness disappears from view:
“The moment Zeitoun and the other three men were led off the boat a dozen soldiers descended upon them. Two men in bullet proof vests leapt on Zeitoun, tackling him to the ground. His face was pushed into the wet grass…”
Later, when he is imprisoned with no contact with the outside world, we are told:
“Zeitoun could think of no indication so far that any measure could be taken to advance his case.”
I would imagine my thoughts would be slightly more colourful by this point.
It seems unfair to criticise Eggers – he has set out to reveal how some individuals were treated after Hurricane Katrina and he has succeeded in this. As far as I’m aware, he has never argued that Zeitoun is the future of literature. The book is readable and it will hopefully shock and anger any reader. However, is it more ‘real’ or more ‘truthful’ than fiction? I would argue no. Its factual basis simply limits the writer, making his characters less real, and his truth shallower and less panoramic.
Danger rating: a little bit too much worthiness and not enough art.