I want you to say art matters," the woman in the audience repeated, almost confrontationally, to author Vendela Vida. In Toronto on tour to promote her novel, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, Vida had been explaining how volunteering at the tutoring program founded by her husband, Dave Eggers, redeemed what she felt was the inherent narcissism of being a writer. The assertion had provoked this audience member, herself a prominent local artist, to speak out: "I want you to say art matters," she said again, unwavering. Finally - somewhat unconvincingly - Vendela Vida agreed.
Is art-making selfishness to be atoned for with altruism, or an act of generosity itself, regardless of subject matter? Dave Eggers seems to be dedicating a lot of energy lately to projects that address both perspectives. Among Eggers's countless philanthropic ventures is Voice of Witness, an imprint of McSweeney's which publishes compilations of oral history to illuminate human-rights crises, and his last two books, What is the What and, now, Zeitoun, have involved intense collaboration with real-life subjects to ensure their stories of personal and political catastrophes are told.
The result of dozens of interviews with Sudanese "Lost Boy" Valentino Achak Deng, What is the What tells of Deng's childhood escape from the Sudan and eventual emigration to the United States. Narrated in an approximation of Deng's voice (and subtitled his "autobiography"), the novel marries Eggers's commitment to social justice with his admirable literary talents: stylistic invention, captivating storytelling and emotional depth. It's a successful book, equal parts political advocacy and literary achievement.
Zeitoun is Eggers's non-fiction follow-up. The humanitarian crisis this time is Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans; the story, expanded from his own, first-person account in Voices from the Storm (the second title in the Voice of Witness series), belongs to Syrian-American businessman Abdulrahman Zeitoun. Written with the close involvement of Zeitoun and his wife, Kathy ("I consider the book as much theirs as mine," Eggers tells therumpus.net), the couple's experience would be great fodder for conspiracy theorists - were it not shockingly, horrifyingly true.
In late August, 2005, as Katrina snarls up the Gulf of Mexico toward New Orleans, Kathy flees the city with the Zeitouns' four young children, while her husband stays behind to safeguard their business interests and home. On Aug. 29, the levees breach, the city floods and Zeitoun, a devout Muslim, feels a sudden sense of divine purpose. He canoes the swamped Uptown streets, rescuing and feeding stranded neighbours, checking on his buildings and tending to abandoned dogs; he discovers, contrary to media reports of roving, murderous gangs, looting and rape, a city washed in an eerie, post-apocalyptic calm.
That is until Sept. 6, when police and soldiers storm one of his properties and arrest a bewildered Zeitoun on vague charges of theft. He and three friends (one, Nasser, is also Syrian-American) are dumped at Camp Greyhound, the downtown bus station repurposed as a temporary prison. "Like Guantánamo," Eggers writes, "there appeared to be nowhere to sit or sleep. There were simply cages and the pavement beneath them."
The prisoners are disallowed the most basic rights of detainees: Zeitoun's repeated requests for a phone call to Kathy are ignored, and anyone deemed troublesome by the M16-toting guards is hauled out of the cells, pepper-sprayed and doused with water before being returned to custody. Sleep-deprived and starving (the military rations contain pork), three days later, Zeitoun and Nasser are transferred to Hunt Correctional, a maximum-security prison, where they are held under baffling, unfounded suspicions of terrorism and possible links to al-Qaeda.
Meanwhile, Kathy and the Zeitoun family in Syria and Spain, having heard nothing for days and fearing the worst, try desperately to find out what's happened to Abdulrahman, only to be thwarted time and again by the bureaucracy of FEMA and Homeland Security. The book serves as a damning indictment of governmental and judicial failings in the wake of Katrina - but beyond that, it recounts a wrenching, human story of family, faith and, ultimately, hope. Rather than the literary ventriloquism of What is the What, Zeitoun is a work of traditional journalism, the writing functional. Scenes shift between the parallel perspectives of husband and wife; flashbacks - Zeitoun's childhood in Syria, Kathy's conversion, prior to meeting Abdulrahman, to Islam - are tied unobtrusively to the main narrative. Notably, no attempts are made to garnish the story with the stylistic flourishes we might expect from the author of the self-referential A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; here, Dave Eggers is all but invisible.
In an interview with Salon, Eggers explains: "I didn't feel like I had a place in this narrative, other than to help structure the story and make it compelling and readable." But at times, this vanishing act results in passages that are not just unadorned, but almost sterile. While the stilted syntax of Zeitoun's account in Voices from the Storm provides a fragmented language appropriate to such an incommensurable disaster ("I go to my house. Really quiet, nothing. Darkness. We didn't have light."), Eggers's deliberately non-stylized rendering lacks the same immediacy: "Night was falling, and he knew he had to be home, safe on his roof. But he was sorry to see the day end."
The choice is simplicity in the name of fidelity: to aestheticize this story, its documentarian has decided, would be to corrupt it. Zeitoun is practical, tethered to its subjects' perspectives, straightforward in its storytelling. And while lines such as, "He could not find a place for the sight in the categories of his mind," might disappoint readers expecting Dave Eggers's usual incisiveness and clever turns of phrase, this is a book to be easily read and understood by any reader. Style is secondary, accessibility paramount: The Zeitouns' story deserves as wide an audience as possible, and all proceeds from the book's sale will be donated to the Zeitoun Foundation, which Eggers helped found and disperses grants to various New Orleans-area non-profits.
To return, finally, to Vendela Vida's feelings about redeeming the writer's supposed privilege - Zeitoun seems a sort of compromise, a work that makes for compelling reading as well as fulfilling a larger social purpose. And if it feels in parts too restrained, we can rest assured that its author, with two films he wrote hitting theatres this year and a novelization of Where the Wild Things Are coming out in the fall, is not forgoing his talents altogether. Dave Eggers is an important writer with a big heart, as conscientious as he is prolific. Whatever he does next, and however he does it, his work matters, and people should be listening.
Pasha Malla is the author of two books and is the current writer-in-residence at the Pierre Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon.