Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Dave Eggers' "Zeitoun" - A Book Recommendation

Have you ever noticed how the stories that make you feel the most, the ones that most stay with you are often novels, fables, legends, stories that are fictitious, imagined, about people who never were and yet who live so much more real in your mind's eye, springing as they do grotesque-evil or salt-of-the-earth-beautiful off that page.

The true stories we read, the non-fiction that we enjoy, while always stimulating often falls short somehow. I'd argue this is because news reportage and less crafted non-fiction typically stick so closely to the "facts" they bypass the feelings behind them. Writers of literary fiction, on the other hand, focus much of their attention on the reaction to events, rather than on the events themselves. The now very in-fashion genre that bridges the gap, that Truman Capote made famous with his desert island worthy "In Cold Blood," is often termed literary non-fiction. That is, a true story written not by a person that can type, but rather by one who has spent the better part of their life learning how to write.

"Zeitoun" is a book of literary non-fiction. As such, it's a gripping story and it is also beautiful, the kind of book you feel proud to own.

With the kind of simplicity that only a master craftsman can achieve (the Malcom Gladwell made famous 10,000 Hour Rule +++ or, in writing terms, the more than 1,000,000 words it takes), Dave Eggers' "Zeitoun" manages, like a world class film composer's score that you don't notice it is so seamlessly thread through the film, to make this true story strictly about Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American man who remains in New Orleans during Katrina and afterward. The writing doesn't once point the finger back at the artist, at Eggers, who is, by now [see my entry on the writer who is also a publisher, philanthropist and screenwriter if interested to see his many accomplishments and why I'm enamoured of him], a massive literary personality in his own right. It takes a good deal of ego to become a master of anything, and a great deal of humility to then cut down and spit-shine your writing so hard as to wipe off any of that egotistical grease you might be tempted to leave behind.

Plain, direct and with my favourite kind of simplicity (the Hemingway-made-famous deceptive kind), what makes this story so compelling is that not only do we get the immediacy of the Katrina debacle as seen through the eyes of a man who lived through it, but as with any heroic story, we get the kind of intimacy that only a book - in novelistic story sense - can provide, spending a few hundred tense yet often tender pages with Zeitoun; we get to know his family, his wife Kathy, an American who converted to Islam before she met her husband (itself a fascinating tangential story that Eggers is clever enough to slow down and tell in detail).

Like reading any great story about any great hero from a world not our own, like reading about a family from India, or a book about a young Jewish man coming of age in Montreal, this work of non-fiction brings us on side with a heroic Muslim man, which seems to me like fair retribution - this kind of empathy inducing tale - when considering the post 9/11 treatment so many Muslim-Americans, and, for that matter, all brown skinned Americans have had to endure in the paranoid post 9/11 world.

"Zeitoun" would be a fascinating story no matter who told it, but with Eggers at the helm, you get a great story told with economy, humility and with the killer critical element - the ability to take you, for instance, onto that metal canoe with Abdulraman, so that you paddle down the streets of New Orleans with him, so that you endure all that follows with him. So that you too can know what this storm did and what abhorrent actions the Bush administration took, and what critical ones they were foolish and heartless enough not to take.

Great imagination is rooted, they say, in empathy. For years I mulled this one over not exactly sure what it meant. I can articulate it now, after having read this powerful story. Eggers digs deep into the life experience that one family endures and in so doing allows us to live those experiences with him. The best books don't just let us escape, nor is it just that they make us think; it is the feeling, it's the empathy that's key because if we don't get to care deeply about the characters involved, why complete five pages of the thing.

I completed 335, and fast.

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