Chronicling Catastrophe: Dave Eggers and the American Nonfiction Novel

What Is the What
Dave Eggers
Knopf Doubleday
Oct 2007
Dave Eggers
Jul 2017

The nonfiction novel is a curious beast at best—it’s too frilly in nature for the stylistically antiseptic practitioners of modern-day journalism (your Jane Mayers and Bob Woodwards) and more concerned with the quotidian lives of ordinary people than many current novelists would prefer (Roberto Bolano to Stephenie Meyer). By using multiple and overlapping points of view and creatively smoothing out some corners that were likely more jagged in the resolutely “true” telling, the nonfiction novel can easily fall prey to charges of distorting history for the sake of art, similarly to how a Hollywood prestige blockbuster “based on actual events” is often critiqued.

Of course, as Tim O’Brien notably observed in his work, the truth is not always the truth. In O’Brien’s rightfully legendary linked collection of Vietnam War short stories, The Things They Carried, there are stories that could have popped straight out of the teller’s mind, with no relation to reality, that can bring you closer to some kind of authenticity than any number of you-are-there dispatches of straight fact. O’Brien writes “a true war story is never about war” and inserts a comment after one such narrative, describing it as “a true story that never happened.”

Due perhaps to that immediate frisson between the real and the unreal captured by the nonfiction novel’s hybridized approach, there is something about the genre that lends itself to the momentous event or catastrophe. Look at some of the most famous elements of the genre. Capote’s fractured and borderline amoralistic In Cold Blood used the approach in order to find a way to wrap the reader’s head around a horrendous crime that just made no real sense in the end. Although for its audience, still devouring the thing in droves decades later, Capote’s take on the brutal and pointless 1959 killing of a family was a revelatory thing, for the writer the hall of mirrors that his story opened up was a devastating and devouring thing; it ended his literary career.

John Hersey’s Hiroshima — which predates by two decades Capote’s 1966 work that supposedly launched the genre — also used the nonfiction novelistic method of multiple points of view and a coolly evocative literary framework in order to bring across to readers the momentous devastation of that cataclysmic day. Other writers who dipped into the genre in later years, but it almost always seemed to be for the big event; there were few nonfiction novels to be found about the ordinary lives of ordinary people in ordinary times.

There was Norman Mailer, in his mammoth, densely-reported take on the October 1967 anti-war demonstrations in Washington, D.C., Armies of the Night (1968), whose subtitle, History as a Novel, the Novel as History, makes his approach on the subject obvious for all.

In Dispatches (1977), Michael Herr also used the genre for his kaleidoscopic stitching together of the welter of frenzied night-terror missives that he had sent back from the frazzled borderlands of the Vietnam War. Herr opens his book in furious poetry — “Going out at night the medics gave you pills, Dexedrine breath like dead snakes kept too long in a jar” — and never lets up.

Herr can let his novelistic tendencies get the better of him sometimes, there’s a suspicious whiff there of stories too perfectly encapsulated to have actually occurred. And yet the deathly thrumming of his narrative is ultimately so overpowering, so transportive, that it can utterly strand the unwary reader in a lonely firebase in the dead of night, the stink of corpses in their nostrils and fear on the wind. It was a feat that even the best of the Vietnam novelists (Larry Heinemann, say) weren’t able to match.

With the likes of Mailer, Herr, and Capote, it was as though the limitations of traditional journalism — or at least what they might see as its limitations — could not encompass the enormity of the events that they were trying to describe for the folks back home, wherever home might be. And they likely understood, as most of us do, that fictions set against the backdrops of the real have a hard time living up to the actual thing. Everyone knows the twisting torture that novelists put actual events through in order to make them align more cogently with the demands of structured fiction. This character needs a love interest, that killing needs to happen at a juncture that heightens its sad tragedy, and so on.

A True Story that Never Happened

A True Story that Never Happened

When faced with a nation stumbling with such profound and callous ineptness while its citizens drowned, a just-the-facts approach will not always pass the adequacy test, and a fictional take could seem downright exploitative.

The thesis that nonfiction novels lend themselves particularly well to covering events of a certain magnitude suffers, though, from the necessary inclusion of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. These two ideologically opposed but stylistically simpatico New Journalists used the genre for famously less weighty purposes, namely providing a bloodshot-eye-level view of countercultural ferment in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby and Hell’s Angels (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas can also be lumped into this category).

It can be argued that in the case of Wolfe and Thompson’s less serious usages of the nonfiction novel method, the exception disproves the rule. Both men’s works have long been standard-issue for most college-graduate bookshelves, less so for the nonfiction novels of Mailer and Hersey. However, a newer practitioner of the genre brings it back to its more calamitous subject matter, albeit with a lighter touch.

Dave Eggers’ 2006 What is the What stands tall as a prime example of the modern nonfiction novel, though it is occasionally termed a novelized autobiography. The book is a sort of return to form for Eggers, who launched his literary career on the back of his 2000 classic, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: Based on a True Story?. A putative autobiography, the book toyed incessantly with notions of reality, layering its sharp, dark emotions with ’90s-style satiric reflexivity and games-playing that somehow amplified them instead of diminishing.

Following that (rightful) success, Eggers had poured most of his energies into writing and education foundations like 826 Valencia and also running his boundary-breaking publishing unit, McSweeneys. His attempts at fiction that have followed (like the collection How We Are Hungry) utilized much of the same playfulness but failed to achieve the same impact as his genre-scrambling breakout book.

With What is the What, Eggers got out of his own head in a magnificent way. By helping tell the story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Sudanese refugee “Lost Boys”, and his epic journey from the parched warlands of Darfur to the (sometimes only slightly less dangerous) American urban landscape, Eggers’ sentences crackled off the page like so many fireworks. In one fell stroke, Eggers managed to regain the poignant sincerity that had eluded much of his writing for the past several years. He also revitalized the nonfiction novel with his bright-eyed and issue-journalism approach.

In Eggers’ newest, Zeitoun, he tackles another modern catastrophe: Katrina. The timing of its publication could hardly be better, as much of the country appears to have moved past pretending to care about what happened in New Orleans at the end of August 2005. The book relates the almost unbelievable story of Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun, Uptown residents who ran a thriving property and contracting business and were separated during the storm when Abdulrahman stayed behind to keep an eye on their job sites.

Eggers labels Zeitoun itself right upfront as “a work of nonfiction”, based primarily on the accounts of the two real people whose story he is telling. Eggers, whose pre-Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius background is much heavier on journalism than creative writing, makes a point of adding:

Dates, times, locations, and other facts have been confirmed by independent sources and the historical record. Conversations have been recounting as best as can be remembered by the participants. Some names have been changed.

While there are those who might discount this kind of signifying as a kind of striving for respectability, Eggers was smart to include it, and for a couple reasons. The first of these is that what Abdulrahman underwent during the storm and after might be difficult to believe otherwise, and secondly because still today comparatively so little has been actively documented about Katrina that somebody telling such a fantastical tale needs to establish their factual bona fides at the start.

As with Deng in What is the What, with Abdulrahman — whose calm and workmanlike point of view trades off throughout Zeitoun with that of his nervier wife — Eggers has found himself a fantastic point-person for his story. One of many children from a ridiculously successful Syrian maritime family (his siblings included a ship captain and a world-famous swimmer), Abdulrahman traveled the world as a merchant marine for years before settling down in New Orleans and starting a family with Kathy, a native-born Louisiana girl who had already converted to Islam years before.

One of those profoundly industrious and proud immigrants whose sweat and toil (not to mention a fervent devotion to his children’s’ education) keeps the country running, Abdulrahman is devoutly religious but decidedly mellow in outlook, counting a gay couple as among his family’s closest friends. He provides Eggers with a saliently calm, resilient, and occasionally poetic viewpoint through which to view the natural catastrophe of Katrina and the man-made chaos that flowed into the city afterward. Instead of the cacophony of voices that can sometimes turn a nonfiction novelist into little more than ringleader, Abdulrahman anchors Zeitoun with a kind of automatic authority that needs no explanation.

As the storm approached, Abdulrahman convinced Kathy to pack herself and her children off to her family home in Baton Rogue, where she could fret about his safety and fend off her mother’s barbed inquiries about her hijab. Stuck in their house as the floodwaters rose, following the break of nearby levees, Abdulrahman is eventually left with only one way to get out and about to check on his various buildings: a second-hand canoe he had bought on a whim some years before. Eggers describes the scene with a typically light touch:

In the afternoon the wind and rain calmed. Zeitoun went outside to explore. It was warm, over eighty degrees. He estimated there were eighteen inches of water on the ground. It was rainwater, murky and grey-brown, but soon, he knew, it would drain away. He looked in the backyard. There was the canoe. It called to him, floating and ready. It was a rare opportunity, he thought, to be able to glide over the roads. He had only this day. He bailed the water resting in the hull, and in his T-shirt and shorts and sneakers, he stepped in.

It’s a memorable central vision for the book, that of this man — who comes off as alternately quite serious and still unabashedly playful in outlook — calmly paddling down the fresh-born canals of his drowned city, like an itinerant wanderer in some fantastically apocalyptic J.G. Ballard novel. Along his circuitous routes, Abdulrahman visits with neighbors and tenants, bringing relief to some, and even regular deliveries of food to the neighborhood dogs piteously left behind.

Abdulrahman’s sequences are delivered with a sharply cinematic narrative (possibly a narrative tool leftover from Eggers’ recent screenwriting work). In comparison, those that take place inside the head of his much more excitable wife are jumbled and jagged with tearing sheaves of emotion. Her quite understandable concern for her husband (a look before you leap type if there ever was one) comes flapping out in waves, amping up to higher decibels once his cellphone battery dies and he’s limited to once-daily calls from a rare operating landline he found in one of their buildings. Then, when Abdulrahman disappears entirely, and the book enters its epic second act — a sad escapade of post-9/11 proto-fascist paranoia and blinkered incompetence — Karen’s worry leaps off the charts.

Zeitoun has its faults. It rips along at a too-quick pace that seems almost more appropriate to a young adult novel. His locutions are simpler and more direct than the sweeping and sentimental lyricism of What is the What, which sometimes keep this book from having the emotional impact it deserves to deliver. And though Eggers clearly states that “this book does not attempt to be an all-encompassing book about New Orleans or Hurricane Katrina,” given all the issues that mushroom up, particularly in the book’s latter sections, it’s hard not to feel frustrated by its being limited to two linked points of view.

That being said, there is a grace to this story that cannot be denied. Eggers’ style is light and skittering throughout, skimming over the roiling cauldron of events like Abdulrahman’s canoe moving swiftly over the familiar streets of his flooded city. That such a (it must be said) model citizen is forced through such a Kafkaesque scenario like what happens to Abdulrahman once the cavalry arrives, speaks more about the nature of George W. Bush-era America than reams of editorials could.

There have been numerous noteworthy attempts to deal with Katrina and its aftereffects in the manner of straight nonfiction, from books like Douglas Brinkley’s The Great Deluge to Spike Lee’s documentary film When the Levees Broke. But as studiously argued as these documents’ outrage might be, there’s something about the catastrophe of Katrina that calls for something more. When faced with a nation stumbling with such profound and callous ineptness while its citizens drowned, a just-the-facts approach will not always pass the adequacy test, and a fictional take could seem downright exploitative.

More melodious and even-tempered than his often more tempestuous nonfiction novelist kin (though one does wonder what kind of monstrous energy Mailer could have brought to the topic, or how Thompson might have giddily deconstructed it), Eggers’ Zeitoun is still a powerful addition to the canon, helping ensure that at least a couple more survivors’ voices will now be heard above the quiet din of national inattention.