Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

The American writer Dave Eggers
The American writer Dave Eggers

The relationship between truth and fiction is, and always will be, complicated and never more so than in the reading of this book: Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. It was published in 2009 to great acclaim, won many prizes and is a non-fiction account of Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s battle with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I had heard of Dave Eggers but had never read any of his work. He is a remarkable achiever who sprang onto the literary landscape in 2000 with a memoir with the hubritic title, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

First of all it is a handsome and well-made book and heavy for its size; expensive paper perhaps. I was immediately impressed by the simple but effective language that painted a loving and respectful relationship between Zeitoun and his American, but Islamic, wife Kathy and their four children, while building the suspense of Katrina bearing down on them. The couple ran a busy and successful painting and maintenance business in New Orleans, but also had several rental properties that they managed. Everyone worked very hard. Zeitoun, originaly from coastal Syria, was a hard-worker, a loving husband, doting father, a devout Muslim, with a strong sense of community and duty to his neighbours. Here was the epitomic hero.

As the hurricane approached Kathy and the kids left for relatives further inland in Baton Rouge leaving Zeitoun to look after the house and their other properties. The storm comes and goes and Zeitoun wonders, is that all there is? No, the mighty storm was not the problem, but the rising water was. He moves everything he can to the second floor and when the water stops rising he jumps in his second-hand canoe and paddles around the city rescuing trapped people and neglected dogs. I knew from the back cover that he would be arrested for suspected looting and imprisoned in a cage but I hadn’t got that far yet.

Then on Thursday evening I went to meet some friends for dinner in a local restaurant. I was the first to arrive and so while I was waiting I Googled Zeitoun and Eggers; I was curious about what had happened to our real-life hero, Zeitoun, and his family. I wish I hadn’t.

Much has been written and reported about Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his wife Kathy since this book was published in 2009. The pressures of fame that the successful book generated, harrassment by the media, and not to forget the trauma of Hurricane Katrina herself all took their toll. Kathy Zeitoun accused her husband of repeated physical abuse, the first time, reportably, but witnessed, with a tyre-lever, and they were divorsed in February 2012. Abdulrahmin was then arrested on charges of attempting to murder his ex-wife and for paying a hit-man to do the deed. Both charges were dismissed in July 2013 by the judge who sided with the defense team who maintained that the prosecution pursued the case because of Zeitoun’s growing fame. In response to his aquittal Kathy Zeitoun said “I was shocked. I am now in fear of my life. I do believe he is going to attack me again, with all my heart.”

Knowing this informaiton before finishing reading the book changed the way I felt about it. This worried me. The publishers and Eggers himself have gone to great lengths to establish the story as not just non-fiction but as fact even though Eggers writes the book as a novel: he describes the thoughts in his character’s heads and conversation, in direct speech, between Zeitoun and Kathy in the privacy of their bed. These are the traits of fiction. Did Zeitoun leave out all the ‘bad’ stuff during his extensive interviews with Eggers? Kathy Zeitoun thinks so; or did Eggers only choose what he wanted to use for his narrative purposes? This is also a skill needed to write fiction.

I had to change my attitude about the book and treat it, think about it, as a novel; that was easy because it’s written like a novel, but changing the idea of the book from non-fiction to fiction wasn’t so easy. When talking about the frelationship between truth and fiction I’ve always used the line that

‘fiction is always about truth but, to make it clear, we have to lie about it a little’.

Dave Eggers has run away, literally, from reporters who want to ask him questions about the veracity of his book and if you google “Zeitoun + Eggers”, or similar, information runs out in late 2013 after Zeitoun was aquitted of the charges brought against him.

The hurricane itself certainly had a devastating effect on the people of New Orleans but for the Zeitoun family, did being the subject of Egger’s book bring its own misery and add to the family’s woes? Or were there already chinks in the relationship before Eggers came along? Chinks that he chose to ignore.

Non-fiction is about facts, truth is about emotion. The fiction may be set on a fictional planet or place but the interplay between the emotions and feelings of the fictional characters are about truth. I believe that the physical action of the story is true: the actual effect of Katrina on the people and the city of New Orleans, but I had to accept that the relationship between the characters, although they themselves existed, was not true, but manufactured, compiled, and organised by Eggers for his own novelistic purposes. This is what novelists do.

I went back to the book, I was only 50 pages in, but I was surprised to realise that I was no longer interested. I didn’t care anymore. The book was trying to be something it wasn’t. For years I’ve been telling people that if you’re not enjoying a book, stop and read something else, even though the urge to finish something you’ve started is very strong. I usually give in to this urge, but with this book, I didn’t. I stopped. Besides I had just found in my local bookshop a book that I’ve been longing for. This bookshop has a swap policy so I swapped my copy of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, the 2013 Man-Booker winner, ironically a book I also didn’t enjoy, but finished, for  Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut: a fictional biography of E.M. Forster. Ha! Yet another permutation of fiction and truth.

All writing is fiction. The only thing true about it is its physicality: little black marks on a white background.

My ‘To Read’ pile to begin 2015

My 'to read' pile. The other book is Colm Toibin's essays on Henry James. Toibin is never far away.
My ‘to read’ pile. The other book is Colm Toibin’s essays on Henry James. Toibin is never far away.

Happy New Year and welcome to 2015: another year of reading and writing; but first the reading. As you can see from the picture my reading for 2015 begins with rather an eclectic batch. This was not planned, well, not all of it was planned. Here’s a little run-down on the list – to be read in no particular order – gleaned from the covers, a little Google search and information I’ve acquired through osmosis.

The Dinner by Herman Koch


I have a dear friend, an Irishman living in Brussels, who visits the island where I live twice a year and being a book-worm himself he brings me novels I wouldn’t otherwise have heard about. My to-read list contains several of his gifts, and The Dinner is one of them. I like to think of him as my Book Fairy. Herman Koch is a Dutch writer and actor and his sixth novel, The Dinner (2009), is his most successful, having been translated into 21 languages; it came out in English in 2012. Two couples meet at a stylish restaurant in Amsterdam for dinner. Each has a teenage son who, together, have committed a horrific act, caught on camera and beamed into living rooms all over the country. The New York Times reviewer called it “a clever, dark confection, like some elegant dessert fashioned out of entrails.” Australia’s Christos Tsiolkas, who, by the way, is doing very well in Europe since the great success of The Slap, is quoted on the jacket, “A riveting, compelling and deliciously uncomfortable read… This novel is both a punch in the guts and also a tonic. It clears the air. A wonderful book.” Can’t wait!

Home by Frank Ronan

Frank Ronan

Another from the Book Fairy, but this time from an Irish author, Frank Ronan who also writes a monthly column for the magazine Gardens Illustrated; Home is his 7th book and came out in 2002. “Born into a cabbage-growing, peace-loving 1960s commune, Coorg is declared, courtesy of a favourable reading of the I Ching, to be the new Messiah… startling and often hilarious,” says the blurb on the back courtesy of the Irish Times.

The Long Prospect by Elizabeth Harrower

Elizabeth Harrower

I was shocked when a recent New Yorker edition arrived, and as usual, I checked out the “Books” section first, and I saw my favourite literary critic, James Woods, devoting a whole article to the re-release of the five novels of an Australian writer called Elizabeth Harrower, who, according to Woods, was alive and well and living in Sydney. She’s 84. I had never heard of her! The very next day I found The Long Prospect in my local second-hand book shop and in the new re-released edition by Text Publishing. Apparently she thinks of her fiction as something abandoned long ago and now can’t be bothered with writing. She wrote 5 novels between 1957 and 1971 but withdrew the last, In Certain Circles, some months before publication, lodged the manuscript with the National Library of Australia and washed her hands of the whole writing thing; until, Michael Heyward, of Text, came along and persuaded her to let him re-publish the lot in 2012. All five are about female characters trapped in tempestuous relationships with a charismatic bully; all male except for this one where the bully is female, the hateful Lillian Hulm.

The Cast Iron Shore by Linda Grant

Linda Grant

Linda Grant is a British novelist and journalist and her first novel. The Cast Iron Shore (another from the Book Fairy) was her first, published in 1995. She has won numerous prizes (The Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000 for When I lived in Modern Times) and was on the long-list for the Man-Booker Prize in 2002 for her third novel Still Here and short listed for the same prize for her fourth The Clothes on Their Backs in 2008. Again, I’m ashamed to say, her name was new to me when the book landed in my hands only recently. It looks historical with a female protagonist who is raised ‘as an empty-headed fashion plate’ but a secret revealed during the Liverpool blitz of the Second World War changes her life and leads her to ‘a seedy hotel room in Hanoi’ and ‘a potato-chip factory in the prairies’, among many other locations, and ultimately to ‘a final choice’.

After Dark by Haruki Murikami

Haruki Murakami

I’ve always been a little afraid of Murikami. I don’t read fantasy or science fiction – I’m a literary realist, I think – but I’ve always been drawn to him, curious, as well – he’s on everyone’s lips – but his books are so big. This one isn’t: I’m putting my toe in the water. It’s his 11th and came out in 2004. “A sleek, gripping novel of encounters set in Tokyo during the spooky hours between midnight and dawn.

My Dream of You by Nuala O’Faolain

Nuala O'Faolain
I’ve just read Nuala O’Faolain’s (Noo la O fway lorn) famous memoir Are You Somebody? and fell in love with her way with words. This is a novel which came out in 2001 after her memoir and is about an Irish travel writer who leaves all that she has behind and returns to Ireland to write a book based on an old scandal of the mid-nineteenth century: an affair between the wife of an English landlord and her Irish servant, but what she really wants to understand is passion itself. I’m curious to read her fiction having only experienced her memoir.

The Moon of Jupiter by Alice Munro

Alice Munro
Although I write short stories occasionally I don’t read them very often but when Alice Munro, a Canadian, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013 I thought it’s time: she is a prolific short story writer, mainly because, as she explains in her introduction to the Vintage edition of her Selected Stories, “When you are responsible for running a house and taking care of small children … it’s hard to arrange for large chunks of time … so I got into the habit of writing short stories.” I’ve read several since BF brought me this collection of her work, and she is not so much interested in the interior life of her female characters but more in the heady and extravagant thoughts around that interior life. One of her characters, Lydia, in a story called Dulse is forever judging, pitting, herself against pleasing the men in her life. Every man she meets she thinks in terms of what would it be like to be with that man; and then she meets a man who is nothing like any other, who is so self-contained ‘alone’ is all he can be. She envies him. “What a lovely durable shelter he has made for himself.” And yet another man, one she has fantasised about, gives her a parting gift “Yet look how this present slyly warmed her, from a distance.” The gift? Eatable seaweed: dulse.

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Paul Bowles

When my partner and I left Australia in 2010 we shipped 25 boxes of books, this one included, and not much else, but lost the lot so it’s good to get another copy to take its place. Thank you BF. I came to Paul Bowles via his extraordinary wife, Jane Bowles, whom Tennessee Williams called the ‘greatest writer of the English language’. Paul started out as a serious composer – studying with Aaron Copland – in New York in the 1940s (I’m playing his music as I write this) and this, his first novel, and most successful, came out in 1949. He died in Tangiers in 1999 aged 88. A story about three American travellers in the deserts and cities of North Africa after World War II, but it is really about how the American incomprehension of alien cultures ultimately destroys such cultures. It was filmed by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1990 starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich, and in which Bowles appears. Looking forward to revisiting this one.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggars

Dave Eggers

Every since Dave Eggars, an American writer, began his career with his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius in 2000, I believed the title. He’s a writer, publisher, screenwriter, editor, designer, philanthropist, journalist … Smarty Pants! He looms large. His books are so dense, heavy – in weight I mean, important, significant, worthy. Anyway, this one is non-fiction about a Syrian-American, a Muslim, who rides out Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. The theme is similar, I’m led to believe as Bowles’, The Sheltering Sky: the inability of white Americans to mentally process ‘the other’.

The Speckled People by Hugo Hamilton

Hugo Hamilton
Hugo Hamilton is another Irish writer and this is a memoir that came out in 2003 but apparently free of the Catholic victim-hood, poverty and misery of the Irish memoir popularised by the likes of Frank McCourt of Angela’s Ashes fame, and as Hermione Lee says in The Guardian, “it’s shaped like a fiction, told, as if naively, in the language of a child.” “To read The Speckled People is to remember why great writing matters,” adds Joseph O’Connor in the Daily Mail.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver

I’ve always wanted to read this book but have never got around to it. I would always pick it up in book shops, hold it, flick through it. An American, she began publishing in 1988 and this one came out in 1998, her eighth work and, I think, her most famous. I mentioned to a friend that I had seen it in the local bookshop. “Get it,” she said. “It’s great.” So I did. That’s all it took. I was primed. Another book about a white American NOT dealing with ‘the foreign’ but as told through the eyes of the women in the family of a stubborn missionary in West Africa in the 1950s.