At age fifteen or sixteen I began a semi-permanent ban on television. The no-television-under-any-circumstances policy lasted from 1999-2001, with a reprieve on Sept 11, and then again enforced as of Sept 12. I began university in 2002, and from that point until the present I haven’t owned a functional tv. I’m still a voracious consumer of news – listening to daily reports on the radio and reading newspapers in print and online – just a consumer of news without the barrage of images to accompany the stories. This consumption pattern meant that in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans I didn’t see (m)any images of the disaster. I certainly heard reports, read stories of the damage, looting, and unpredictably zealous or absent support from the authorities.
So when I read that Dave Eggers – one of my long favoured authors* – had written another news-novel (more on the genre distinction in a moment) about one family’s experience of the Hurricane, I put it on my list. I admit that what I read amounted to novel news to me in the sense of altogether unknown news about the hurricane. I had little idea that so many citizens were wrongfully and illegally detained in the aftermath of the hurricane; I wasn’t sure about the reports of rape, looting, assault (though to be fair, the novel does a fairly poor job of clarifying whether these events did in fact take place; rather, Eggers points out that there were contradictory news reports and leaves it – frustratingly – at that).
Grounding the hurricane (ha!) in the story of one family – the Zeitoun family – allows the reader to care deeply about the disaster because it has been carefully and thoroughly personalized. I wonder whether the Zeitoun family already inhabited a host of compelling issues in contemporary American life, or whether Eggers emphasized these issues in order to craft a more compelling novel (okay, so I don’t actually wonder, but it’s worth asking the question), but whatever the case, the Zeitoun’s embody questions of race, religion, patriotism, the precarious middle class in ways that read as genuine and appropriately complex.
In terms of genre I have a hard time accepting the designation of ‘non-fiction’ (as assigned by my library). The book is a novel, a historical one, perhaps, or what I’m calling here a news-novel. It has the usual plot, characters, and setting, but more crucially in the ‘novel’ designation – for this reader, anyway – it has thematic preoccupations (what can one man accomplish when set against nature? against the state?), symbols (the flood, drowning, risks of water, rainbows, bleh), and a shifting point of view. Much like What is the What the news-novel asks the reader to accept that what is written is for all intents ‘true,’ but allows that in any telling there will be fictional elements. It is, in short, a genre I like.
*I also like Dave Eggers. Those with reservations who have only read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius would do well to try reading something else he’s written. I myself enjoyed AHWOSG, but see a stark (really) difference between the autobiographical work and his news-novels and short stories. So here’s my plug for an author I adore (not like he needs a plug, but still): he’s really very good.