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Another fine mess

Reader fan critic teacher reader fan.

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Ottessa Moshfegh
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Zeitoun - Dave Eggers I'm going to bury the obligatory conversation about Eggers--my feelings and others' therewith--because I find it annoying how persistently his work disappears into the mirror-chambers of author-love and -hate. (But I still feel obligated, damn it, so way below.)

I'm also going to avoid spoilers, at least until the comments and conversation that may erupt in the thread below, because Zeitoun packs a punch as a gearshift novel, drawing you into a devastating portrait of one kind of disaster before revealing another dimension of trouble and heartache. Saying much more--or reading even a too-inclusive plot summary--undercuts some of the emotional wallop at the moment of the shift. (I appreciated Timothy Egan's heartfelt rave in the August 13 NY Times, but I'm not even hyperlinking, 'cause he gives too much away.) Suffice to say: Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun have a happy family and a successful painting/contracting business in New Orleans, and when Abdul opts to weather the incoming Katrina, he ends up grappling with that storm's devastation. . .

. . . or, rather, with the systemic injustices and failings which amplified the storm's power into a city- and populace-demolishing force. Eggers rather brilliantly keeps us inside the tight frame of the Zeitouns' concerns, assuming (correctly) that we do not need a lot of deep historical, or political, or meteorological exposition, that the implications of these experiences ripple and roil on their own. You walk away from this narrative--whatever your political bent going in--with an unmistakable understanding of how the injustices exposed by Katrina's landfall are tied to various systemic problems still swamping us.

But, my own sociopolitical rage and shame aside, the novel is told with a calm and subtlety reflective of protagonist Abdul Zeitoun's soulful empathy. He feels precisely and clearly, without showboat dramatics, and often what he feels is set aside for the moment's demands to act. So much of the narrative is concerned with details and plans and (horrifyingly) the failure of plans: the discovery of an older, obese neighbor floating helplessly in her living room doesn't need a lot of handwringing--she demands attention, and quick, purposeful response. By sticking largely to action, Eggers' retelling evokes a kind of empathetic anxiety: what to do, what to do, what to do? I found myself constantly struggling to think how to fix or sidestep or respond to an immediate event facing Zeitoun, and this created a deep abiding compounding fury and fear about the larger scope and context as the narrative progressed.

It is fair to say that I missed some of the verbal and structural pyrotechnics I associate with Eggers' writing, but--aside from a pitch-perfect deployment of interruptive flashbacks to Abdulrahman's family history in Syria and after--this narrative remains grounded in a Zeitounian worldview as events unfold. And here I'll close with the promised obligatory Eggers appraisal. The pyrotechnics, the pomo self-consciousness, the striking stylistic showboating of so much of his work (as a publisher, author, personality) has always been simply a frame to hang around a sincere emotive empathy central to all of his work. I've always considered Eggers a remarkably generous writer of affective experience -- "generous" because even as he attends to (for example) the youthful bravado and dramatics of his own feelings in his memoir, even as he seems ironically to comment on and debunk those feelings, he seems to care about and for and *with* that earlier Eggers. The self he narrates is foolish, and so is the narrator, but such foolishness isn't derided or smugly ironized. He cares about caring; all the showing off doesn't distract from the central thrust of the memoir, or the subsequent fiction, or these rather brilliant nonfictional witnessing narratives he's produced of late--which is that we need to care about one another. And writing & reading help us to do that. And his writing is particularly good, I think, at doing that. So I don't give a shit if he's actually smug, or even if he's actually a lovely lovely guy. I think his writing speaks for itself, and it speaks to me, and I think it says some wonderful (and often awful) things about the way people live and treat one another. This is a helluva good book, and a welcome addition to a growing field of great narratives about the Katrina disaster.