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.