On the strength of some marvelous reviews, we’re about to read Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. Its subject is a recent political outrage (the response to Hurricane Katrina) and its method is ventriloquism (Eggers writes on behalf of a real family, the Zeitouns, who survived the tragedy). In both respects it is similar to Eggers’ last book, What is the What, in which he spoke on behalf of a lost boy of Sudan. But that book was categorized as fiction. The new book is being shelved as non-fiction.
As the figurehead of the McSweeney’s enterprise, Eggers is the poster boy for its effects on contemporary fiction. But the man himself has been a more successful writer when he stays away from fiction. His memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and his new works of political ventriloquism, What is the What and Zeitoun, are generally more highly regarded and more widely read than his fiction, You Shall Know Our Velocity and How We Are Hungry. If it seems weird to think of McSweeney’s being run by a non-fiction writer, just remember that lots of ostensibly fictional pieces in McSweeney’s are preoccupied with being based on “actual” facts, and many of their recurring features are letters, dispatches, advice columns, and other literary forms that rely on being “true” for their impact and authority.
Our generation is a bit obsessed with marking the boundary between what is objectively true and what is merely spin. We lament the decline of truth in media, and we encourage each other to be skeptical about everything from political compaigns and medical studies to the authenticity of our Ethiopian food and the conditions under which our t-shirts were manufactured. This anxiety is summed up nicely in the idea of “truthiness,” which is the quality of being true, according to a single person’s unexamined beliefs, but false by any other measure. “Truthiness” is a sarcastic term. It’s our way of laughing at the idea that something can be a little bit true, and a little bit false—or true by one person’s standards, and false by another’s. That’s ridiculous. Or so we tell ourselves when we’re watching The Colbert Report.
We’re excited to read Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, but we’re also wary, because it represents the vanguard in the drifting of fiction toward a type of “truthiness.” If there is great value in objective truth (however difficult the truth may be to identify), there is also great value in fiction—the un-truth that everyone recognizes and responds to as such. Plenty of people in our generation are concerned with protecting the truth from the evil forces of spin and subjectivity. But there aren’t many of us trying to protect fiction from degrading into a realm of quasi-truth, where all authority is drawn from supposedly real events and supposedly proven facts. If we drift too far in the McSweeney’s direction, those noble fools who defend the truth won’t even know how to define their opposite.