The OF Blog: Down in the Flood: Marvin Mann and A. David Lewis's Some New Kind of Slaughter, Dave Egger's Zeitoun

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Down in the Flood: Marvin Mann and A. David Lewis's Some New Kind of Slaughter, Dave Egger's Zeitoun

If it keeps on rainin, levees goin to break,
If it keeps on rainin, levees goin to break,

When the levee breaks Ill have no place to stay.

Mean old levee taught me to weep and moan,
Lord, mean old levee taught me to weep and moan,
Got what it takes to make a mountain man leave his home,
Oh, well, oh, well, oh, well.

Don't it make you feel bad

When youre tryin to find your way home,

You dont know which way to go?

- Led Zeppelin, "When the Levee Breaks"
Water is the source of life. Yet despite our bodies being mostly composed by water, there is something terrible about drownings, especially in the violence of a flood. The rapid, threatening torrents of water bursting through levees, dams, and other natural and manmade structures, swamping all in its path. Death by the inhalation of what sustains us. There is something more terrible about that irony when the nature of mass death is that of death by water. It is not surprising therefore that so many global myths revolve around the notion of a huge flood that threatens the annihilation of all life.

In Marvin Mann and A. David Lewis's Some New Kind of Slaughter~or~ Lost in the Flood (And How We Found Home Again): Diluvian Myths from Around the World, the author/illustrators concentrate on the mythic, purifying qualities of the diluvian myths from the ancient Middle East, the Americas, Australia, Greece, Africa, China, as well as elsewhere. Utilizing a rapid-fire switch of narrators, from that of Noah's son Khem to the Aboriginal priests capable of entering Dreamtime, Mann and Lewis break their graphic novel into four parts, focusing on origins, preparation, the downpour, and the aftermath. The reader is confronted with certain uncomfortable truths, namely that human societies have seen themselves as being not just products of a god(s)'s thought, but that humans often suffer from divine caprice; that floods serve to wipe out the wicked...and those not quick enough to separate themselves from the wicked; that sometimes the "true believers" may be worse than those abandoned to their fates; and that faith is not always enough when faced with sudden natural disaster.

Mann and Lewis's illustrations fit the storylines well. Seeing the looks of anguish, despair, forlorn hope, and determined resistance in the characters from the world diluvian myths made me pay closer to the themes the authors had woven into the images and text. Have we ever managed to overcome ourselves? Or do our vanities, fears, and prejudices still affect us, with the Flood ever looming over us?

In Dave Eggers' Zeitoun, the answer to those questions unfortunately is a resounding no. Eggers in this book tells the moving story of Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun and their experiences before, during, and just after Hurricane Katrina broke the Lake Ponchartrain levees and flooded much of New Orleans. Eggers continues here his mastery of taking another's story (witness the power of the novelized memoir of 2006's What is the What) and making it feel both like a novel and like the slice of an everyman's life.

The Zeitouns are sympathetic characters, as Abdulrahman has, after growing up in Syria, established a successful house painting/building business while his American wife Kathy struggles with raising her children in a society that has become increasingly xenophobic after the 9/11 attacks. But Abdulrahman refuses to heed the evacuation orders even as his wife and their children flee to the home of an old friend of Kathy's in Phoenix.

Eggers describes the flood sparsely. Although written in the third-person limited point of view informed by the Zeitouns' discussions with Eggers, the main action of the novel takes on the cast that Abdulrahman gave it. He does not despair of the devastation wrought as much as he dwells upon how he can help reconstruct the city. In this, his attitudes are similar to those of the survivors of the global diluvian myths touched upon the Mann and Lewis book. But what makes the Zeitouns' story gripping is what happens when a good deed fails to go unpunished.

The heart of the book concerns Abdulrahman's abrupt, scary, and ultimately humiliating treatment after he and his friends' good neighbor work is misinterpreted and they are arrested. In roughly one hundred pages, Eggers recounts Abdulrahman's confrontations with the fears and hatred of those who purportedly were there to "help" and to "restore order." Although both Abdulrahman or Eggers might have been tempted to expound upon the mistreatment and humiliations that Abdulrahman has to endure for close to a month while his family never gets to hear of his fate because of FEMA and Department of Homeland Security concerns that he might be a terrorist, the fact that these scenes are told in brief, matter-of-fact passages serves to underscore just how terrifying the scene could be in its hypothetical universal application to us as human beings.

Reading both the Mann/Lewis and Eggers book back-to-back added to my enjoyment of both. Each story is, on the surface, told simply, but the real power is in how these "simple" stories reveal so much about ourselves as people and how we confront not just disasters like floods, but even more how we assign guilt, blame, or conversely, take responsibility for providing care for the destitute. Stories like these tend to stick with me for a long time and I am certain that both books will be deserving of slots in my year-end Best of 2009 reviews.

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