The Making of Zombie Wars: A Novel
There are times in which the reader feels nonplussed.
How, he asks himself, can he possibly have anything even remotely critical to say about an author like Aleksandar Hemon, who has, in his career, been twice nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award (for The Lazarus Project and The Book of My Lives) and received both a Guggenheim Award and a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, to say nothing of his PEN/Sebald Award?
Surely, the reader should be cowed by all this.
And yet, truth is truth, and as my friend Peggy Kahn used to say, “A cat can look at a king.”
And so, truth to be told: the best thing about Hemon’s new novel The Making of Zombie Wars is the title.
It sets the stage quite nicely for the tale of lost soul and general fuck-up Joshua, who, as part of his vague exploration of the art of screenwriting, comes up with the concept of Zombie Wars, a knockoff of a knockoff of a knockoff of The Walking Dead.
Of Joshua and his urge to create, Hemon writes:
“In a blissful blink, Joshua saw the narrative landscape nearly laid down before him: all the endless possibilities, all the overhead and wide shots, all the graceful character trajectories blazing across the spectacular firmament, all the expanse conducive to a love interest—all Joshua had to do was stroll through that Edenic symmetry and write it down. This time, he was determined, his vision would not decompose in the computer’s memory with the skeletons of his other ideas; he opened, right then and there the Final Draft file and created the title page to stare at:
by Joshua Levin
Chicago, March 31, 2003
“Whereupon he stared at it.
“Alas, unless you’re the Lord himself, creation cannot be willed: Joshua needed to eat something before embarking upon it, and hence stood in line behind an overtattooed prick who couldn’t decide between banana and pumpkin bread, while the barista in a Che Guevara hat (yet presumably fluent in Middle fucking English) looked on indifferently. The impasse allowed Joshua to imagine a zombie biting into the prick’s neck tattoos, blood splashing the ready lattes, turning them pink, the zombie oblivious to the hysterically hissing espresso machine.”
This brief passage reveals much of the reality of The Making of Zombie Wars. It reveals both the fact that the language of the book hits the page like little jewels strewn across the paper forming sentences like sparkly necklaces, and the reality that the language is just plain wasted on the lumpy old story that is being told. You’ve got to love those skeletons of old ideas still lingering on the hard drive. But, oy, the bitchery: the slicing and dicing of that poor barista, the hate flung at the inky guy whose only crime was not ordering fast enough.
This, apparently, is the “droll humor” that Hemon has been so praised for possessing. If so, then this must be a very funny book indeed.
The Making of Zombie Wars seems a book written for a very specific segment of our society, for those men/boys who own a full-sized plastic replica of Captain America’s shield that they take off the wall and stroke late at night while the rest of the family sleeps.
And we are warned about what we are up against very early on, by the quote from George W. Bush that opens the book:
“When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world and you knew exactly who they were. It was us versus them and it was clear who them was. Today, we’re not so sure who the they are, but we know they’re there.”
To put it another way, this is a work that seems dedicated to posing, if not exactly getting around to answering, the question that it itself introduces on page 69:
“What is it with boys? How do they slide into fucked-upness so quickly, with such natural ease?”
Thus, the idea of war—even a zombie war—is natural enough, given that words like “violence” and “danger” echo throughout the text.
And even if he is mired in the questions of just who “them” and “they are, our pal Josh is, the reader theorizes, trying to figure out his life on sort of a subconscious level.
On the surface, however, he seems to be a rather smug, entitled twit who is vaguely homophobic and rampantly misogynistic (all the women in the book are mistreated, maligned—even Joshua’s mother is painted as a bitch who is routinely belittled or ignored by her son, and his sister as an overbearing hypocrite—all, apparently for the purpose of droll humor) and seemingly utterly lacking in compassion for or any interest in the lives of those around him.
In short, he is the last person you would want to have standing behind you in line at the coffee shop, if both the banana and the pumpkin bread were looking good that day.
The Chicago in which these wars take place is one in which you are likely to come home one day to find your landlord sniffing your dirty underwear. One in which there just may be a samurai sword hidden behind your washing machine. One in which even the sunrise is raped of the golden hope of a new day:
“The sun emerged from the lake, as if from hiding; finger-fucked dawn crept over the building tops and bare tree crowns and the city in which some kind of violence was always afoot.”
(There’s the dichotomy again: the beauty of the image of the branches of the bare trees being crowns for the sun as it rises in the sky—the ugliness of the rest.)
And indeed, in this Chicago, violence is always afoot. It hangs from the trees; it hides behind bushes. It lurks in the dreams of timid little Joshua:
“There was always a little violence, only occasional vanilla sex, his dreams were damp rather than wet.”
Here at last, a line both droll and funny.
In writing The Making of Zombie Wars, Aleksandar Hemon dances a testosterone-fueled dance and peeks at the nature of heterosexual relationships (men use, men injure, men lust for, men have sex with, men steal from, men insult and ignore, and then men abandon women), the manly quest for creative outlet (the making of The Making of Zombie Wars), and the manly bond that men share with other men:
“Men think, also drink, bond. Deliver lengthy soliloquies built of improvised conviction, incomplete sentences. They touch the biceps of their fellow men, punch his shoulder affectionately; a few bruises—why not?—the marks of shared manhood, of alcohol-enhanced circulation. Men confide, lust rhetorically, copulate hypothetically with women of unacknowledged fantasy. Men outline their life stories and philosophies, relive ball games, take good care not to are visibly about anything. Fuck, they say, a fucking lot.”
The result of all this is something rather repugnant. And archaic.
Something of such a retro nature that it seems to be in need of a bullfighter or some other Hemingway-esque stereotype. And, indeed, it is something that echoes Ernest, both in the flinty beauty of the language and in its utter confusion as to what a man truly is, as opposed to the literary nonsense (the deeply sensitive, almost empathic creature who hides his emotions behind a wall of “fuck”) of what a man should be.
With The Making of Zombie Wars, Aleksander Hemon offers little service to his reader or his art. Instead, he offers a tired idea of the definition of “boy,” of “man,” even of “zombie,” for that matter, and wraps the whole thing in sparkling language that deserves to be in a much better book.