A Questionable Shape
By Bennett Sims
(Two Dollar Radio)
Colson Whitehead’s Zone One might have been the recent apotheosis of literary genre fiction, both a character-driven and action-packed story of man against zombie set in strip-mall ruins and an abandoned yet slowly resurgent New York City. But this debut novel is even higherbrow—in fact, it might be the highestbrow take possible on something so ostensibly low. The most action in the first 150 pages of this slim yet dense book is a sighting of one of the “undead,” standing motionless in a driveway at night. Though there are news reports and YouTube videos of such undead feasting on their living counterparts, our hero, Mike, only ever encounters them standing stock still, off at a safe distance. You know what, it turns out, is creepier than a zombie charging at you? A zombie not charging at you.
This isn’t post-apocalyptic fiction. Most zombie narratives start from a conservative position—the failure of government, the breakdown of civil society—but when Sims’s novel opens, the outbreak has been contained: “much of the chaos of the early days had dissipated, the way a nightmare’s logic will midway through the morning’s piss.” The undead are kept in quarantine, and the few still wandering are picked up by police and local CDC officials. (It’s set in Baton Rouge, where Sims is from, though he now lives in Iowa.) They have legal protections, possessing “roughly the same... as, say, coma patients or the mentally ill.” Not unlike Whitehead’s Stragglers, Sims’s undead return to familiar haunts, wandering between meaningful places from their lives. Mike spends his days with his friend Matt, searching for the latter’s father, who disappeared and is presumed undead, visiting his home, his favorite mall, a movie theater, all against the ticking clock of impending hurricane season; he spends his evenings concealing from his girlfriend his increasing morbidity—his growing obsession with undeath.
Instead of detailing World War Z, Sims puzzles over undeath: he hypothesizes about the infected’s mode of perception, moving through multiple video-game and art history references. He wonders about the nature of their remembrance, whether they’re capable of physical sensation. The undead here pose a philosophical problem—not one of survival—and the book is as much treatise as it is novel. (The first chapter is mostly about a certain kind of light the narrator and his girlfriend once enjoyed.) Mike is desperate to understand undeath, running through myriad apt metaphors and cultural comparisons: bits of poetry and film history that seem to presage the outbreak. (True to the author’s intellectualism, the book is full of footnotes, which Sims justifies as a matter of form fitting content: “the footnote is the typographic mark most emblematic of undeath... the footnote digs a grave in the text, an underworld in the text. The words that are banished there are like thoughts that the text has repressed, pushed down into its unconscious. But they go on disturbing it from beneath, such that if the text were ever infected, they are the words that would guide it. Footnotes are a text’s phantom feet.”)
Though the book is troubled by the realities of a fictional condition, it’s really about the emotional fallout of the epidemic, the new anxieties which are merely new—and newly exacerbated—manifestations of old and familiar anxieties: do parents and children really know each other? Do lovers? Are we all descending into automazation? ARE WE ALREADY UNDEAD? Tackling these ideas, Sims demonstrates he isn’t just smart—he’s brilliant; his book’s not beautiful—it’s gorgeous. It’s sensitive, insightful and ruminative, which aren’t always things you get to say about zombie fiction, let alone most books.