Fitting the Form

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Zeitoun by Dave Eggars Softcover, $15.95 McSweeney's Books 2010

by Dave Eggars
Softcover, $15.95
McSweeney’s Books

On September 6, 2005, in an American city convulsing with chaos, an American citizen of Middle-Eastern descent was detained without charge by the U.S. Army, imprisoned indefinitely in a makeshift jail, and there confronted by an American soldier with one snarling accusation: “Taliban.” The name of that prisoner was Abdulrahman Zeitoun, and his cell in that jail was one of dozens of demountable iron cages assembled by the Army in the Union Passenger Terminal in downtown New Orleans.

At that time, in that particular September, the floodwaters raised by Hurricane Katrina still engulfed the city. Most residents had already been evacuated or had otherwise abandoned their homes and escaped. Of those who chose to remain behind, some had further ravaged the city with vandalism and looting so widespread that the Bush Administration had dispatched the Army to restore the peace. But for those like Abdulrahman Zeitoun, whose ethnicity recognisably matched the profile of the Army’s designated foreign enemy, the price to be paid for salvation from anarchy was punitive persecution by Army operatives indulging in overzealous authoritarianism. With “no questions [asked], no evidence seized, no charges levelled [against him],” Zeitoun became “collateral damage in a war that had no discernible fronts, no real shape, and no rules.”

Those words, however, do not belong to Zeitoun himself. They belong instead to the literary polymath Dave Eggers—editor of the quarterly journal McSweeney’s, author of several acclaimed works of idiosyncratic pseudo-fiction, and co-writer of last year’s film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are as well as the indie feature Away We Go. Since 2004, Eggers has also been quietly overseeing an experiment in literary journalism entitled Voices of Witness, “a series of books [written by various authors] that use oral history to illuminate human rights crises around the world.” Zeitoun, Eggers’ own account of Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s pre- and post-Katrina ordeal, is an outgrowth of that series—a third-person elaboration on the first-person testimony Zeitoun gave to Eggers’ colleagues, Lola Vollen and Chris Ying, for inclusion in the Voices of Witness anthology on those who survived the hurricane.

The series as a whole is a valuable enterprise insofar as it makes an innovative and practical contribution to worldwide social justice; and, obviously, it is politically salient insofar as it teases out the personal and individual consequences of otherwise abstract legal transgressions and policy manipulations of governments across the globe. But the value of Zeitoun in particular lies less in its immediate political relevance or in its contribution to social justice than in its careful aesthetic nuances—its very literariness.

As journalism, it does neither more nor less than what it must: it recounts Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s Syrian childhood and gives voice to his aspirations upon emigration to America; it playfully recalls his efforts to court his wife and to start a family; it details the family’s brushes with post-9/11 anti-Islamic discrimination; and finally, it follows Zeitoun’s wife and children to Baton Rouge as they flee from Hurricane Katrina while Zeitoun himself refuses to leave New Orleans and, in the aftermath of the hurricane, paddles around the flooded streets in a second-hand canoe to deliver emergency aid to any survivors who require it. As literature, however, Zeitoun generates a delicate tension between its subject matter and its prose style, so that, on the whole, it achieves an effect far above and beyond what it would have achieved if Eggers had approached it with strict fidelity to the norms of journalism.

The prose is not remarkable in any conventional sense. It is clear, muted, and even pedestrian—a world away from the exuberance of Roberto Bolaño, the zing of Don DeLillo, and the lyricism of Ian McEwan—and, for that reason, Zeitoun has attracted a number of offhand dismissals from broadsheet critics. Indeed, even those who have praised the book’s narrative have expressed reservations about the prose, as if its lack of conventional beauty were a side-effect of Dave Eggers’ overstretched workload or, worse, a symptom of his inherently underwhelming literary capabilities. But since Eggers has repeatedly proven himself one of the most adventurous stylists at work today, it seems more likely that his prose in Zeitoun is unconventionally remarkable given the deliberation with which he attempts to make it appear unremarkable. The clarity of his prose entails a stylistic about-face so radical that, far from making the prose inconspicuous, Eggers perhaps inadvertently calls attention to the prose itself and thus calls into question the purpose of its clarity. Noticeably gone is the ventriloquism of his previous book, What Is the What, in which he told the story of a real, living man—a refugee from war-torn Sudan—in a voice that purportedly belonged to the man himself. Gone, too, is the authorial self-awareness that led him to pre-emptively warn his readers that a short story about two potential lovers was “not about [these people actually] falling in love,” and gone are the stylistic acrobatics of his debut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, in which he wondered aloud how the deaths of his parents would change the ways that he and his younger brother were treated by other people:

We are disadvantaged but young and virile. […W]e are taller, we radiate. We are orphans. As orphans, we are celebrities. We are foreign exchange people, from a place where there are still orphans. Russia? Romania? Somewhere raw and exotic. We are the bright new stars born of a screaming black hole, the nascent suns burst from the darkness, from the grasping void of space that folds and swallows—a darkness that would devour anyone not as strong as we.

While such rhetorical extravagances were typical of A Heartbreaking Work, only one passage of similarly introspective extravagance appears in Zeitoun—and precisely because it is so anomalous, it is the one false note in an otherwise focused and disciplined book. Imprisoned seemingly without end and afflicted by an unidentifiable abdominal pain, Abdulrahman Zeitoun recoils in his cell and laments his misfortunes:

[He] had a sudden and strange thought, that the pain in his side could be caused not by infection or injury, but by sorrow. […] Maybe it was just the manifestation of his anger and sadness and helplessness. He did not want any of this to be true. He did not want it to be true that his home and his city were underwater. He did not want it to be true that his wife and children were fifteen hundred miles away and might by now presume him to be dead. He did not want it to be true that he was now and might always be a man in a cage, hidden away, no longer part of the world.

As a standalone passage, this is affectively eloquent. In context, though, it undermines the prosaic restraint with which Eggers otherwise advances his overall aesthetic project. Elsewhere, he does not deviate from relentlessly and methodically reciting nothing beyond the bare facts of Zeitoun’s ordeal; he details Zeitoun’s experiences with pinpoint precision but refuses—almost obsessively—to evoke their emotional import:

It was Zeitoun’s turn for processing. He was brought to the Amtrak counter and fingerprinted. He was pushed against a nearby wall on which height markers had been written by hand, from five to seven feet. Zeitoun had stood in this exact place before while waiting to buy train tickets for friends or employees. Now, while handcuffed and guarded by two soldiers with M-16s, his photograph was being taken. … Eventually he was brought back to the row of chairs and was seated again. […] Moments later, Zeitoun was grabbed roughly under the arm. “Stand up,” a soldier said.

Zeitoun stood and was led by three soldiers into a small room—some kind of utility closet. Inside there were bare walls and a small folding table.

The door closed behind him. He was alone with two soldiers.

“Remove your clothes,” one said.

The prose, here, is utterly lacking emotional affect, but hardly as a result of authorial carelessness. By allowing the passive voice to dominate the prose in twelve of these thirteen sentences and almost as frequently throughout the book, Eggers positions Zeitoun as a man who does not do things so much as he has things done to him. As a result, he is mired in a situation so unreal that he is unable to even conceive of it properly—it is as if he is only watching events move against him, as if undergoing an out-of-body experience—and yet, equally importantly, the soldiers who establish and enforce the system that imprisons Zeitoun are just as depersonalised and just as unable to grasp the broader meaning of their situation. Rarely does Zeitoun snap out of his passive daze and reassesses his surroundings to note the absurdity of his circumstances, and only once does the prose put that absurdity into words:

Until this point, [he] had not been charged with a crime. He had not been read his rights. He did not know why he was being held. Now he was in a small white room being asked by two soldiers, each of them in full camouflage and holding automatic rifles, to remove his clothes.

And so the book unfolds, with Zeitoun steadily pressured into increasingly outlandish circumstances and pausing now and then to acknowledge just how absurd they are—always in prose that neither favors nor explicitly criticises the situation conveyed:

As the night went black, the lights came on. […] The night grew darker and cooler, but the lights stayed on, brighter than day. The men were not given sheets, blankets, or pillows. Soon there was a new guard on duty, sitting on the chair opposite them, and they asked him where they were supposed to sleep. He told them that he didn’t care where they slept, as long as it was on the pavement, where he could see them.

And later:

Other guards occasionally walked by with their German shepherds, but the night was otherwise uneventful. There was only the face of the guard, his M-16 by his side, the floodlights coming from every angle, illuminating the faces of Zeitoun’s fellow prisoners, all drawn, exhausted, half-mad with fatigue and confusion.

And later still:

[Zeitoun] watched as the night guard left and was replaced by a new man. The new guard’s expression was the same as his predecessor’s, seeming to take for granted the guilt of the men in the cage.

The cumulative effect of this is as compelling as it is disquieting. As time goes on, with Zeitoun no closer to justice than when he was initially imprisoned, what was at first outlandish becomes, instead, outrageous. Eggers catalogues a whole array of outrageous incidents but never allows himself, or the voice of the narrative, to be outraged by them. The resolute patience of his book seems intended to challenge the patience of its readers. Indeed, it positively taunts us into losing our patience altogether. The more pedestrian the prose remains in the face of injustice, the more aggravating the injustices themselves; the more restrained the style, the more invigorated the reading experience; the less indignant the author, the faster the pages fly by.

This isn’t an effect of the prose style alone. It is, as before, an effect of the tension between style and subject. When an innocent man is detained without charge, imprisoned indefinitely, accused of terrorism, and psychologically broken, there is nowhere else for his narrative to go: either he is set free or he is not, and then the story concludes. In Zeitoun, Eggers explores a subject that excites such passion in an almost entirely dispassionate voice, and therein lies the tension. Waiting for the passive, factual narrative voice to break, to assume the outraged emotions of the reader, is the source of the suspense which propels Zeitoun—and the fact that he never does so is what makes the reading experience so rewarding.

Although Eggers has sometimes been accused, with reason, of writing in a voice so determinedly postmodern that its detachment from its subject verges on the autistic, here he has chosen a subject and a style that mesh together almost perfectly. In doing so, he has taken a significant step towards entering the company of such stylistic masters as Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy. Hemingway found that the subject of post-war trauma perfectly suited to his preference for simple words, clipped sentences, and perpetual understatement: the subject implied the style itself. More recently, in The Road, McCarthy found the subject of post-apocalyptic destruction perfectly suited his baroque cadences: largely shorn of punctuation and with the usual rules of diction and syntax blasted out of each sentence, the awkward lope of his style suggested that the style itself had been scarred by the apocalypse as much as the ravaged world it depicted. While Dave Eggers is not yet in the same league as either McCarthy or Hemingway, the integration of subject and style here suggests that he knows what he needs to do to get there.

Of course, in other respects, the book has serious weaknesses. Because the dialogue is as affectless as the rest of the prose, it is largely unconvincing. Occasionally, Eggers submits to the temptation to explain Islamic belief and practice with an over-elaboration that is dry and didactic rather than descriptive. And, unfortunately, while the book is willing to say that Zeitoun fell victim to systemic legal transgressions as opposed to an isolated political anomaly, its reluctance to show that system at work beyond Zeitoun’s own experience means that it stops short of obtaining the broadest possible view of its subject. Nevertheless, Eggers’ affectless prose infuses Zeitoun with such relentless forward momentum that these weaknesses fall away into the distance like lights on the horizon seen from a speeding vehicle: they vanish as quickly as they appear, submitting to the unwavering accumulation of detail with which Eggers compels readers to keep reading even as the narrative action grinds to a halt in that cage.

In almost anyone else’s hands—in anyone else’s voice—the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun would have incensed its readers only on the narrative level, as a rote account of human rights abuses, regardless of the particularities of the medium in which it was told. Likely, it would have become a melodrama in overwrought prose. In Eggers’ hands, though, the narrative is all the more frustrating because he advances it by skilfully exploiting the particularities of literature as his chosen art form. He understands that art form in its totality as something more than a mere receptacle for pure narrative, and he maximises the vitality of his narrative by extracting as much value as possible from its non-narrative aspects.

By repeatedly choosing the mundane word over a comparatively extravagant synonym, by allowing the passive voice to prevail, and by detailing Zeitoun’s sedentary state so comprehensively as to perpetually defer a resolution, Eggers uses his prose style to ferment a tension in his readers that heightens the political travesty at the heart of the story he tells. So while social justice and political salience may be the forces that make Zeitoun’s ordeal worthy of our attention, they alone do not make a compelling read. His story alone does not make the book work. That is the task of the author’s art: to breathe life into the story of Zeitoun’s ordeal.

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About Daniel Wood

Daniel Wood is a graduate student, tutor, and lecturer at the University of Melbourne, Australia, where he researches and teaches American literature.