This is the third Eggers book I've read and they've all been really readable. I like reading them.
The others were Heartbreaking Work
and What is the What,
and all of them have been about things that are true.Zeitoun
is fuckin' horrifying. It's about a Syrian emigrant to the US who chooses to stay in New Orleans during Katrina due to reasons that make perfect sense. He's equipped to stay, he has properties to watch out for, he's resourceful: he's actually the right guy to stay. He's an asset to the post-Katrina mess. And then he's arrested for no reason and you really understand what it's like to be trapped in a broken system. It's eloquently put and solidly researched: this is what really happened, in our country, to one of our people who was helping. It's as powerful an attack on what can go wrong in a country you thought had its shit together as I've seen, and - I want to really emphasize this - it's absolutely true. Eggers checked his sources; there aren't any events in this book that didn't take place.
But Zeitoun the character turns out not to be Zeitoun now.
And it's hard for me to deal with that. Was he not a violent man before? All my experience tells me that domestic abuse doesn't come from nowhere; this behavior probably existed before. (His ex-wife, Kathy, has given conflicting reports.) I could be wrong! Zeitoun's experience post-Katrina may have been so traumatic that it tilted him. I just...don't know.
Eggers as a writer has a slippery relationship with truth. Heartbreaking Work
deals extensively with the difference between recollection and reality. What is the What
is billed as a fictionalized autobiography; Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng collaborated on a version of the latter's life. And here with Zeitoun
we have a story where all the facts are true, but the characters may be false.
I wonder whether he turned Zeitoun into his story, or whether the story changed Zeitoun. One way or another, this novel turns into a metafictional comment on the conflict between the story we write and the story we want told.
Eggers has set out to be a novelist who writes nonfiction. This story is great, but it got away from him. I'm not sure if that's okay.