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Book Review: Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

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Zeitoun by Dave Eggers is a boring book. Not as boring as What is the What? Not as boring as You Shall Know Our Velocity! About equally boring as How We are Hungry. And boring. Just boring.

Dave Eggers moves his snailish narrative at a slug's pace. It's all about a man named Abdulrahman Zeitoun. First half of the book he floats around in a canoe. Second half of the book he's in jail. It's like Old Man and The Sea meets The Stranger. It's that boring.

There's something about Hurricane Katrina here. It hits the city Zeitoun is in. The city Zeitoun is in is New Orleans. Thus, the floating. Then there's something about police, or terrorism, and he's in jail and can't get a phone call. It's like The Perfect Storm meets The Trial.

But there's this whole bureaucracy too, and they want to elicit a confession through semi-illicit means. It's like 1984. This book is Orwellian and Kafka-esque, at the same time.

The characters are ridiculous. I've never met anyone like them in real life. A Syrian-American? Who runs a house painting company? Married to a white trash Islam convert? With three kids? All girls? I thought Muslim daddies beat their baby daughters to death with rocks before they left the hospital. I thought it was like Blood Meridian meets The Quran.

The real truth is, when you read this book you're going to want to go on a jihad yourself. The injustices suffered by this good, totally innocent, hard-working family man are so far beyond the pale that it just reaffirms everything that I, as a liberal, know to be true. The ugly head of American fascism rears its head and gnashes its teeth.

The power structure at hand here breaks down like this: The Federal Emergency Management Agency was "folded" into the Department of Homeland Security after 9-11. As you'll recall, FEMA was in charge of the Big Easy during the Katrina aftermath. That means FEMA was in charge of all prisoners, too. You'll also recall that the DHS had (still does) powers to detain suspects indefinitely, e.g., Guantanamo. The net was cast wide and Zeitoun was caught in it.

That's an apt metaphor because it's the central one in the book. It's the 'What is the What?' parable of Zeitoun. When Zeitoun was a kid he'd go out with his brother and other local fisherman on moonless nights hunting those little fish, I forget what they're called. They go on your pizza. Those little fish they like algae; they like to eat it. If you didn't know, algae glow in the dark if hit by a light source. On moonless nights, the fisherman would bring lights out on their boat to the ocean and light up the perimeter. The algae would start glowing and soon enough the little fish would be circling the boat and they'd cast the net and haul in the load. And sometimes they'd catch a fish like a dolphin or an eel that didn't belong and it would die. That dolphin is Zeitoun. Zeitoun is that eel. Anchovies. That's what they are. Oh, Zeitoun doesn't die though.

A stupid metaphor it is, jammed into the book to make it literary. I'm here to tell you it's not. It's journalism. It's potent, it's powerful, it will enrage you. The literary flourishes don't add anything.

Dave Eggers throws in some left-behind doggies for Zeitoun to save because he's — Eggers is — trying to save the fricking world and he thinks you won't read his book if it doesn't have doggies in it. And it's probably true. But it's cynical.

You know what this book is really about though? It's about a man adrift in the world, nay the universe. Born on a tiny island in Syria, he drifts across the sea on shipping liners, drifting to Johannesburg, Cleveland, Mumbai, Stockholm… Finally he drifts into port in Houston and comes to settle in New Orleans. But what do you know, he finds himself eternally drifting, drifting now down the streets of his flooded hometown. But the winds and the waves of fate are more powerful than a mere man, and sometimes one will find himself smashed up against a rock wall.

But you know what this book is really about? Faith. The other central metaphor of the book is this: Zeitoun's statement on why he believes there is a God, spoken to the captain of one of the ships he worked on:

"'Look above you, at the stars and moon. How do the stars keep their place in the sky, how does the moon rotate around the earth, the earth around the sun? Who's navigating?… Without someone guiding us,' Zeitoun finished, 'wouldn't the stars and moon fall to earth, wouldn't the oceans overrun the land? Any vessel, any carrier of humans, needs a captain, yes?'"

Zeitoun, devout Muslim that he his, has faith that someone is in control. Zeitoun had faith in America. Someone, surely, would prevent all these horrific things from occurring, so he thought, so we all would think. Though there is the storm, the government will save the people. Though there is a legal misunderstanding, the government will come in and sort things out. This is America, so of course! But, no.

It's hard to parcel out a general opinion on this one. As anyone who has read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius knows, Eggers is the most gifted prose stylist of at least the last 10 years, bar none. Zeitoun is Eggers in the role of journalist, and it's good as far as journalism goes, but it's a far cry from the Eggers-ian prose of yore. It's a heavy-handed, pedantic book, that's boring as hell. It's also a thoughtful, at times beautiful, and in the end a deeply, deeply affecting, and important work. As long as you know what you're in for, the only thing to do is strongly recommend it.

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  • moot23

    So I read this crappy review of this book Zeitoun, and I’m pretty sure it must me spot on, because, come on, it’s right here on the internets.

    Also, it makes fun of the title “What is the What?” Was that a title? That was really confusing! What is the what indeed!

    There’s a lot of guilt in this book. But also, I sense redemption. Redemption via credit card, on my credit card. I am loving… and redeeming… and buying.

    I think.