Nonfiction has a way of highlighting moments in history that represent greater, more universal ideas. It comes from the belief that trends and ideas of a given zeitgeist inexorably bind themselves to every corner of civilization; in the tiniest of mundane moments, culture and civilization are happening all at once.
In “Zeitoun,” Dave Eggers tells the account of one family’s story during Hurricane Katrina. It’s the type of story that seems too flawlessly tragic to be true. The elements seem too perfectly aligned to be realistic. Coincidence feels too serendipitous. But this is what makes “Zeitoun” such an overwhelming experience. It’s too good to make up.
“Zeitoun” follows the story of a Muslim family living in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. It revolves around Abdulrahman Zeitoun, the patriarch and a protagonist of Beowulf-sized proportions, who stays in the city during the storm as his wife, Kathy, and their three children evacuate to Baton Rouge.
The Zeitoun family is immediately appealing. Abdulrahman (who goes by Zeitoun) is a stoic but likable moral man; Kathy is a warm balance to Zeitoun’s obstinate morality; their three daughters are giddy happy girls, constantly singing and repeating lines from “Pride and Prejudice.” From the very first page, the reader feels close to this family, mixed in with the anticipation and knowledge that something bad is going to happen.
Eggers does a masterful job of telling Zeitoun’s story as it brushes shoulders with the stories we collectively remember from the media’s coverage of the storm. We know the story, but we don’t know the story and Eggers shines by bringing the two together.
When Zeitoun travels around before the storm, nailing up windows and preparing non-perishables, it immediately channels our memory of similar images from news coverage. When Zeitoun teams up with a neighbor to help an elderly obese woman out of her house, it feels like a story we already know.
When Zeitoun is interviewed by a news crew as their boats pass one another, we realize that we’re being forced to confront our own understanding of the storm as we understood in 2006, according to news coverage.
Kathy’s parallel story outside the storm helps illustrate the complex relationship between what was happening and what was reported.
“All over the web she found news of violence and evidence of its overstatement. One page would report hundreds of murders, crocodiles in the water, gangs of men rampaging. Another page would report that no babies had been raped. That there had been no murders in the Superdome, no deaths in the Convention Center. There was no end to the fear and confusion, the racist assumptions and the rumor-mongering.”
By pairing first hand accounts of the story with its coverage, Eggers forces us to judge our own previous understanding of the story. When the plot takes a considerable turn for the worse, Zeitoun’s story becomes less like Noah and more like Job. And all the while, Kathy is on the other side crumbling under the anxiety of the news coverage. Eggers is showing us a reality and the subsequent coverage of that reality.
But “Zeitoun” isn’t a critical reprimand of hyperbolic media coverage. The media extracted from the news stories greater concepts about racism, religion and political ineptitude. In “Zeitoun,” Eggers is deconstructing these high concepts and bringing them back to earth. It’s through this stripped down style of storytelling that Eggers allows the Zeitoun family to become real people rather than characters in a surreal nightmare.