World War Z: The Movie

Of course when I started seeing trailers and reading descriptions of the film adaption of Max Brooks’s journal of the zombie apocalypse, World War Z, I immediately jumped up onto my high horse and started penning angry screeds in the comment sections of Reddit. (Just kidding. I don’t use Reddit.) Why in the hell were they even calling this movie World War Z if exactly nothing was taken from the book but the title? The book World War Z is nerdy and wonky, very much what a serious military history geek would write about the zombie apocalypse with CNN on mute in the background. So, maybe the individual voices were a little same-same; Brooks’s take was refreshing in its long, global pan, broken out from the locked room scenarios of so many zombie narratives. Instead of the usual how will we survive tomorrow, it was a consideration of how society – societies – would respond to such a threat.

Admittedly, the book is a little bloodless – the snap gone out of recountings because we know the raconteur has survived – and I was expecting changes. Much of Brooks’s book simply wouldn’t work on the screen. I did have some fantasies about the film being about the soldier’s narrative. He pops up at least three times in the book, moving from the Battle of Yonkers – which is actually beautifully narrated, and a pretty biting criticism of the ways military tacticians refuse to adapt to changing realities – to a West Coast enclave, and then back out through the flyover states, reclaiming this grand America. The zombie herds like buffalo, the consideration of the in-fill towns and the feral domestic animals, the drudgery and mud-covered victories: all this would have worked on the screen. Alas, no mas.

World War Z, the film, opens with a languorous morning flipping pancakes and only occasionally tense domesticity. Gerry Lane is an ex-CIA investigator, clearly still in the recovery phase of adjustment to stay-at-home dad and unemployment. His kids are moppets, and while I think it might be indicted that his wife is a professional of some kind, this isn’t lingered on. The New York setting and the traffic snarl action pieces reminded me of Will Smith’s I Am Legend, but the New Yorkiness and generally elegiac tone is absent from the movie. Pitt’s Gerry Lane seems like someone who would be better played by Tom Cruise, whose asshole Ethan Hunt routine from the Mission Impossible movies might register stronger than Pitt’s surfer insouciance. Much as I generally like Pitt, here he lacked an edge that made his supposed backstory anything but narrative justification. I was in the CIA, like, I guess.

From here, the movie bops around the zombie apocalypse, running set pieces with the thinnest of narrative fiber between them. Some of the set pieces were honestly thrilling – like the zombies swarming over the Israeli wall, or some of the stuff in North Korea. Some of them felt like hey, what about an outbreak on a plane??? I felt twitchy about a wasted David Morse vamping through a toothless mouth prosthetic about Jews and how they never forget, although the chatty Jurgen Warbrunn – one of the few characters (sort of) from the novel – explains a little better what looks like unvarnished antisemitism in Morse’s explanations of the Israeli response. I liked the look of the androgyne Israeli soldier tasked to escort Lane out of Israel, but there wasn’t much more than a look to her character. All in all, the movie was the kind of contentless flash-bang that can be fun in the dollar theater on a Sunday, but will likely diminish on the small screen to the point of boring.

Rather than just complain about fast zombies, because honestly, that’s maybe the lamest criticism one can level at the zombie narrative, my complaints more have to do with the lack of viscera. (Seriously, I’ve been trolled one too many times by people exclaiming that fast zombies aren’t really zombies, like the taxonomy of imaginary creatures isn’t flexible enough to include a little sprinting.) But really it was the lack of guts that got me, because whatever other societal jibber jabber zombie narrative might capture, they can thrill because of entrail-rending zombie bouquets, the mob ripping someone limb from limb. They’re about physical fear, body horror, our fear of the inevitably declining meat-sack we all live in. It’s not about the fear of death, but of decomposing life. Blood splatter was notably absent in World War Z, which seems a crying shame.

But that’s not even what I want to note about this movie. What I want to talk about is Gerry Lane’s wife. I’ve noted before that zombie stories deal with domesticity in a weird way, and the housewife, as the embodiment of domesticity, ends up bearing the brunt of the weirdness. And maybe I should just take a minute to define terms. Yes, obviously, Lane’s wife is working outside the home, and Lane himself is playing emasculated parent to her harping worry. There’s a quelling quality to their marital interactions: you shouldn’t want to go back out into that manly, war-torn landscape, Gerry. No, no, of course I don’t. I’m using housewife as a shorthand term for the straight, white, middle class momming set, working or not, who regularly are the focal point of the Mommy Wars, the cultural wars, and apparently, now the zombie wars. The housewife is a category more mythic than actual, but she’s got teeth like any other monster, and sometimes she sprints.

But when the fit hits the shan, it’s Gerry’s war skills that nurture domesticity. Gerry mansplains to the Hispanic family that they have to move to be safe in crisis, and they don’t listen, bringing moppet count up to three when their son takes the advice they don’t. By the time the Lane family makes it to the aircraft carrier, Mrs Lane is in full on helicopter mom mode, hissing at Gerry and the UN dude that they should take their conversation about zombies outside lest they upset the children. I punched my husband at this point in the film – in the arm, jeez – why wouldn’t she want to know wtf was going on? Fair enough, don’t freak out the kids anymore than you have to, but given that they were pretty much unconscious in every scene from here on out, maybe you have a shred of curiosity about anything but making sandwiches? Why would a professional woman just wring her hands and push her sleeping babies’ hair out of their eyes? You’re in danger of getting chucked from the relative safety of the carrier, why don’t you offer up whatever hastily sketched skills you have?

Mrs Lane’s story reaches a nadir when she calls Gerry in a panic while he’s on a dangerous op in North Korea, the squeal of the phone alerting the zombies to their locale. Pro life tip: set your cell phone to buzz when in the zombie apocalypse. (Also: cell phones work?) His world-weary decision not to tell her that her domestic panic got a lot of good men killed – good men! – just exhausted me. Broads, man, amiright? Don’t text me right now because I’m in a v. important meeting. Mrs Lane ends up as this tragic impetus for action, inert and often interfering, but without agency or motivation beyond the cheesy invocation of family. Someone smacks down Gerry near the end when he invokes it right back – I watched the thing that became my wife kill my children – but this is a weird conversation, bros ruminating on their obligations that are little more than luggage. Think of the children! Because that’s all we can do!

I don’t know. It’s late, and I’m tired, and maybe I’ll be back to bloviate tomorrow. I thought WWZ: the Movie was fine when people were running and screaming, but it wasn’t much more than that in the end.

Oh, and also, the scene where Gerry pops open a Pepsi machine and the cans all rolled with their labels out cracked my shit up. Pepsi: The Choice of the Undead! Pepsi quenches your thirst for brains.

Capitol Girls: Hunger Games Make-Up

My daughter and I ditched over to the Walgreens on Lake St in Minneapolis to get a gift for a birthday party she was to attend. I’ve always liked that drug store, despite it being down heel and over-stuffed. Even though my neighborhood is very mixed – residential and commercial, foreign and domestic born, poor and maybe not rich, but certainly middle class, different races – the clientele for businesses tend to sort by class or ethnicity. White girl that I am, I don’t frequent the botanica two blocks down; that store is not for me. I also don’t go into the punker store (too old), nor the saddle shop (too not a cowboy), nor the various halal groceries (too…atheist?) Even within our mixed neighborhood, we sort.

But the Walgreens on Lake cuts this really cool cross-section. Some of this is, admittedly, the fact that it’s a drug store, and the need for microwave popcorn and some $2 novelty socks at 11pm cuts across all socioeconomic and racial divides. But still, even then, when you compare that Walgreens with the CVS just blocks up, which has roughly the same kind of 2-for-1, as-seen-on-TV kind of endcaps, the Lake St Walgreens has a decidedly more broad clientele. And really garrulous employees. I was in there getting a prescription filled for my husband a couple of weeks ago, and the pharmacist browbeat me into getting a flu shot, at which point a young woman in a hijab stuck me efficiently, and then gave me a sticker.

So I was just jaw-dropped when I saw the following spinning display rack right smack in the middle of the make-up section.

spinning display of Covergirl ads using the districts as themes.  The idea of Hunger Games district-themed make-up was bad enough, but to be confronted with it in one of the few places I can think of in my city that don’t exemplify the (admittedly simplistic) divisions of Collins’s dystopia, well, that was another thing entirely. But I’m probably getting ahead of myself here, because when I posted this image on facebook, those who hadn’t read the books didn’t get how egregious this ad campaign is.

So, a little back story on the country of Panem, where Collins’s story unfolds. Panem is a post-America America, occupying the same landmass, but there are hints this a post-peak-oil and/or other post-apocalyptic environment, but centuries past whatever crisis changed the US into Panem. The political/economic system has been reordered into twelve districts controlled by an unnumbered district known as The Capitol. Each district is defined by a primary industry: coal-mining, agriculture, small electronics, heavy industry, etc. Due to a rebellion by the districts 75 years earlier, each of these districts offer up two teenagers to the Capitol as tribute every year to fight to the death in the Hunger Games. Out of 24 tributes, only one will survive. The whole event is televised.

fan generated map of Panem's districts, which takes up large swaths of North America
map of Panem

Now, I’m the first to admit this political/economic system is ridiculous, and it wouldn’t take more than a minute to rip it apart as unrealistic in concrete terms. But when you’re dealing with dystopia, and to a lesser extent young adult literature, strict realism isn’t the point, nor should it be. I was bowled over by Collins’s country of Panem because she captured a certain emotional reality that we live every day. My neighborhood is a Capitol sorted by districts. It is a microcosm of Panem, a country which makes manifest our American economic disconnects into the rigid structures of barbed wire and geography. Collins turns the economic, political, racial divides into someplace clarified and concrete, and then she has our children fight to death within it. Sure, it’s unrealistic, but it’s also happening every godamn day of the week.

But what does this have to do with make-up? Lemmee tell you. The plot of Hunger Games deals with Katniss Everdeen, a teenager from District  12, the poorest and least populated district in Panem, and her experience as one of the tributes in the Hunger Games. The main industry of District 12 is coal mining. Mum and I took a tour of the coal mines in the coal districts of Wales, and what I took from the experience was that mining is the most out-of-sight-out-of-mind of the heavy industries. Men disappear underground to bring up fuel for the capitalist fire, and when they die in cave-ins and of suffocation or eaten by machinery, their bodies are often not recovered. Like fishing towns, the graves are predominantly for women, because the men just disappear into a pit. The labor movements roil underground in thousands of unmarked tombs. (At this point I highly recommend doing a google for “pit ponies poetry” and just freaking out at the poems you’ll find. They were brought down to work until they died. I won’t put a fine point on the definition of “they.”)

very old black and white photo of a pit pony in a British coal mine
Pit pony

One of the things I love so fiercely about Hunger Games is how it has this nuanced engagement with things generally seen as girly frivolity, things like fashion. Katniss is brought from her district to the Capitol, and denuded and perfected according to the beauty standards of the capital city. The sequence of her bodily perfection reads like an assault, almost a sexual one, her body flensed and bitten, her poverty stripped and removed. The Capitol takes away the marks of poverty in order to kill her with spectacle. She wakes up to the the gentle tutelage of Cinna, who will be her fashion consultant through the Hunger Games. He knows what she’s gone through, and he has a game plan. While Katniss, rube teen, wants to reject all the trappings of her assault and the cruel spectacle of the Hunger Games, he sees the subversive utility of playing the game to other ends. He reads it all against the grain.

As a completely unacculturated teen, Katniss can only see her engagement with the Capitol in all-or-nothing ways. She will wear black and combat boots and scowl. She will act the part of her resistance because she cannot look the part of her resistance. But the character of Cinna shows the beauty of subversion, the ways you can twist things designed to oppress you to uplift you. It’s not as simple as “looking pretty makes you stupid”, but something weirder like “looking like you have authority means you have authority” or maybe “take seriously the deliberately unserious” or maybe “not everything is as it seems.” To misquote Elizabeth Bishop: sometimes we are living in imaginary gardens with real toads in them. Panem is an imaginary garden with real toads.

After the first movie came out, I was confronted by a Katniss Barbie doll in the toy aisle, and I really had to consider whether I thought this was a nightmare or not. After a ton of searching my late-model feminist soul, I eventually decided Katniss Barbie was okay. It’s kind of perfect, in a way, because the Hunger Games series can be consumed as just addictive pop fiction, this present tense hurtle to finish all about love triangles and teen tragedy and the like.  It’s a Barbie, totally all about consumption, which you watch, glued to set just as surely as any Capitol citizen.

Two racist ethnic caricature Barbies, Katniss, and Holiday Barbie.

I’ve seen a lot of teen reviews of the series that seem to have zero idea that there’s a deeper message to the Hunger Games series, training their attention on love triangles and pretty dresses. But one day those kids might wake up, bolted out of sleep that, wait, omigod, I’m living in the godamn Capitol. That’s the power of the series. That’s the power of the Katniss Barbie: something you play with until you realize that play is action. It’s practice, and it’s a subversion.

But, boy howdy, is the Covergirl Hunger Games campaign completely message-deaf. Dressing up as a coal miner, with “flamed out” eyeliner and mascara, with nails black and blue like bruises or coal is the kind of horrible poverty porn that every single person in Panem who doesn’t live in the Capitol hates about the Capitol, and with good reason. Don’t play dress up with the inescapable economic hardships of other people, people who on some level live and die so you can swan around in the comfort you so richly deserve. Accessorize with black lung, and malnutrition, and infant mortality, and short lives that don’t matter to anyone but those who lived them. Accessorize with injustice.

This isn’t even getting into the model marked “livestock” from District 10, with a feather headdress and a fur collar, animistic eye make-up fanning out over her stark blue eyes. It’s almost too easy to rip this easy equation of female bodies with cattle for the slaughter, the invocation of bestiality, the dehumanizing furriness. Or the dreary Orientalism of the model for District 3, all made up like some cyberpunk fantasy, denuded of hair, even her eyebrows replaced with sharp triangles. When I think cheap electronics, I think Asian woman, amiright?

Or the District 1 “luxury” model whose look invokes Marie Antoinette. Which, okay, maybe that’s hilarious. Maybe that’s the only look here that isn’t repulsive, that gets on some level the symbolic structure of the districts to the Capitol. I don’t even know what to say about the model for District 4: Fishing, which dresses up a black woman as a fish.  Or the District 2: Masonry look which puts Kabuki slash Mod make-up on a white woman. I just…my feminist background has no ways of dealing with this mess.

I’m kind of getting rage fatigue thinking about these looks, and the fact that probably dozens of people, maybe hundreds, were involved in their creation; that thousands, probably tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars went into this campaign, and not one person said, “You guys, we should be ashamed of ourselves.” These aren’t, presumably, teens who have an excuse when they miss the point completely, but grown ass adults. I’m not even trashing the models or peons – we all have to work, and eat – I’m trashing all the damn people with the power to greenlight such a complete disaster. Who have no sense of irony. Who can’t even read.

 I’m not even saying I’m not a Capitol dweller myself. I am. I’m not even saying that shame is enough of a political act to counter the wrong in the world. It isn’t. The wrongs in the world are staggeringly large and crushingly intractable. But compounding them by playing poverty dress-up is disgusting, and worse than that, it’s the wrong kind of subversion. 

Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me. 

But I’m not buying it this time.

Review: Walking Dead: 30 Days Without an Accident

Walking Dead offers very few meta moments where the writers tip their hands and remind you this is a show. It’s far too earnest for that, blending tightly constructed spectacle against the almost drearily telegraphed lack-of-soap operatics of living post-apocalypse. So it was fun to a see a little fan moment, where Carol and Daryl are chatting about Daryl’s new standing as trusted badass with the new members of the prison group, and she tells him to accept the love. She also calls him pooky. This was a just adorable nod to Reedus’s fan-favorite status, and threw a bone to us Carol/Daryl shippers who want acknowledgement that Carol and Daryl are going to get married and have like a million babies.

As far as the rest of the episode went, it was a fairly perfect example of the things Walking Dead tends to get right with just enough stuff to worry me about what the writers think they are doing that I’m not too comfortable. Which in some ways is meta in it’s own way. This season looks to be about how the prison population has adjusted to the new normal with a modicum of safety and competence, and how that’s going to go to shit. Everything from the cold open, which was, per the best of them, wordless and packed with meaningful detail, to the almost casual beginning as the group goes to loot the Piggly Wiggly shows how our group has built strategies and coping mechanisms for their new world. They’re not running anymore; they’re not just sitting still; they’re building.

One of the things Walking Dead has always knocked out of the park are their gory action set-pieces, and “30 Days Without an Accident” delivers in spades. Because of the Big Bad last season, many of the set-pieces felt small or freighted with emotional weight that the characters cannot deliver (though the actors sometimes could, despite writing failures.) The zombies-as-threat had given way to humans-as-threat, which is a perfectly cromulent dramatic shift, but I don’t think Walking Dead has ever pulled off character work that convincingly. Too many torture sequences, too many growled conversations, too much posturing, not enough fucking zombies eating your face. There was too much set in the set pieces, like the zombie MMA sequences that felt like they were occurring on a sound-stage in Burbank.

But the Piggly Wiggly sequence: this was awesome. My husband and I screamed and sang “It’s raining zombies!” though the whole thing, shrieking when the bodies hit the ground, doing that thing where you shift out of the way like you can make the character see the zombie coming right for them! It was glorious and disgusting, and maybe more importantly, it established the themes for the season. So yeah, you’re clever with drawing out all the walkers with a boombox wired to some car batteries and you’re tight formation but you didn’t factor in the rotting infrastructure of a World Without Us. (One of Weisman’s observations about what happens to human-built structures with no maintenance: if you want to take down a house, cut an 18 inch square hole in the roof and stand back. About a year should do it.)  The crew have adjusted to zombies, but they haven’t adjusted in many ways to the changing parameters of the world. The rot isn’t just in the splashing bodies, but in everything, even the living. We’re all just meat sacks in the end. We kill or we die. Or we die and then we kill.

Which brings me to  the disease outbreak in the prison. This storyline has a lot of potential, and seems a logical extension of the whole zombie mechanism we have here. If anyone who dies turns, and anyone can die from even mundane illnesses, you have a situation were there needs to be a lot more security even within relative safety. But I’m a little perplexed by the conversations about naming things – the pig, then the walkers – and what this was supposed to be about. Here we are, three plus years from the zombie apocalypse, and people (though admittedly children) are having conversations about the relative humanity of walkers? Who even does that? If this is supposed to be some broad semaphore that the kids from Shelbyville are out of touch, then that’s pretty lame, given what they’ve undoubtedly been through since the shitshow at the end of last season.

Rick’s conversation with Crazy Irish was a similar mix of good stuff and perplexing. I liked her truncated and obviously obfuscating stories about what happened to her and her group after the world went to hell, but this sequence (fairly long sequence) didn’t do much other than set up an unsurprising reveal, and did almost nothing for Rick’s character that hasn’t been done before. (Also, thanks for the bullet point conversation with Hershel. “I could be her” indeed, Rick.) I did like the bit where Rick didn’t even go to look at the zombaby, because in a world of horrors, who needs another one? But like the conversations between Glenn and Maggie, this was mostly wheel-spinning retreading of “conflicts” that have never had much juice, and are getting thin with reiteration. If that isn’t a mixed metaphor. Moving on.

I think I’m in the stray observations part of the essay. I’m pleased to see Michonne both smiling and joking! – who even knew that was possible – and I liked seeing Beth doing something other than having huge liquid eyes. She’s given a boyfriend and a fairly interesting monologue after he’s dispatched, which makes me wonder if she isn’t bullseyed for death next episode. Walking Dead has a fairly annoying tendency to dispatch minor characters right after they are given absolutely anything to do – RIP T-Dog, and mustached pedobear, and every black character not still living, and Milton – so I don’t have much hope for her continued survival. I still hate gravitas-mouthpiece Hershel with a white hot intensity. The dude who got stuck under the wine bottles: this was a fairly hilarious sequence where he’s obviously telegraphing his temptation to the drop and then WHAM, a huge metaphor just fell on your legs. I almost took joy in it, because it was so ham-fisted.

This episode felt mostly like scene-setting, which I don’t count as a bad thing. Here is our new normal, and here are the threats to that normal. So far, I don’t see anything (or anyone) arising as the new Big Bad – Michonne’s obviously off on a hunt for the Governor, but that’s not given much time. I’m not sure that’s a problem, exactly, because Walking Dead seems to falter when drawing out conflicts based on personality or (God help us) philosophy. I would be incredibly happy to see a season based on more mundane, personal, physical survival mechanics, the heretofore interstitial pieces like Carol’s knife lessons given more prominence.  Much as I like watching them die, I want to see how they live, and not as some abstract conceptual piece, but on a nuts and bolts level. We’ll see how that goes for me.

Look, Fred, a Zombie Kangaroo: How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea

So, as I mentioned in my review of San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats, I’ve been reading Newsflesh novellas as my big end of summer hurrah. While Browncoats corrected a lot of the things I don’t like about the Newsflesh world, being as it is an outbreak story unconnected to the events of the trilogy, How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea hit every single thing I don’t like about Newsflesh, and then added a couple more, just for fun. This was a Scooby Doo episode, and not in a good way. 

The first thing I thought when I read the synopsis for How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea, a Newsflesh novella set in Australia was, are there going to be zombie kangaroos? Because lol, that’s pretty much what anyone thinks about when they think about Australia right, Scoob and gang? I’m on record as digging it when non-Americans write about America kinda broadly, because you can get some interesting parallax views that I would have never considered, being inside the boiling, melting pot myself, but this kind of adventure tourism based on the laziest of national stereotypes is much more suited to Saturday morning cartoons based on a talking Great Dane and his highass friends. I can’t even say anything about the Australian national character, but I’m going to call bullshit on Mahir’s mansplaining, the rabbit-proof fence, and the zombie kangaroo national preserve. Givez-moi un break, sheila. Here’s some hot Vegemite down your pants. 

Mahir Gowda, After the End Times blogger who was my favorite from the novels and tea-drinking Brit, goes to Australia to…something. Check out the zombie kangaroo preserve and hang out with some weirdos? Motivations are murky. He meets up with some new End Times bloggers, apparently hired after the events of the trilogy, who hew to the exhaustingly dumb character traits of blogging platforms in the zombie future. Blah, blah, Irwins are always on camera poking things with sticks, etc. Fictionals are dreamy and write poetry and Newsies something about truth and justice or whatnot. I have never ever bought the blogging trifecta outlined in the Newsflesh novels, and because it’s been a year since I’ve read them, so much of the world building stuff has slipped for me because it didn’t make any sense to begin with. At the time, I was willing to accept what I felt were dumb, impossible reactions (socially speaking) because I’d been boiling in them for hundreds of pages, but the river had sped on, and my foot went into something less to my liking and slipped. 

Apparently Australia has a much more loosey goosey attitude towards the six hundred billion blood tests necessary to fucking do anything ever in the rest of the anglophone world (which we’ve only really ever seen the UK and North America, so whatever about China, Africa, or the rest of you lot.) Mahir eye-bugs about having a picnic; there’s a lot of bush-piloting around and Coke-drinking; zombie wombats and some taxonomy about kangaroos. What really set my teeth was Mahir’s final speech to a group of semi-rioting outbackers about how they should totally cherish their kinda bullshit freedoms because the rest of us are so busy spooking at Muslim terrorists zombies that our lives are shit, but he wouldn’t want to live somewhere with zombats, because security. Also, please get me some tea because I’m British, you see. 

Just, ugh, this is so the kind of thing an American would write thinking they were being all thoughtful narrative about our paranoid security state – down to the polyamorous relationship that isn’t remarked on in any real way, but just kinda sits there as a thing. We just gutted the Voting Rights Act and DOMA, and one of those things is a shitshow, and the other is great, but I’m sick of zero sum games of rights and freedom and security. I’m sick of reductionist bullshit and other countries as allegory, because other countries are not our allegories. Look, Fred, zombie kangaroos! Bah. 

Well, phew, that was something of a rampage, and I feel like I need to pull out of my death spiral a little before I conclude. The thing that garnered this annoying, plot-arc-less story the extra star was a couple of brief asides about Georgia Mason as she is during the last novel. (I’m seriously trying to avoid spoilers here, and, fyi, there are spoilers all over this novella for Blackout, so if you haven’t read the series and don’t want to be spoiled, don’t start here.) Mahir got into the philosophy of the mind stuff that I thought was squandered in Blackout, even if the treatment was kinda cursory and topical. Two stars. Also, kinda fuck this book.

You Can’t Take the Con from Me: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats

I am of the opinion that Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy is perfect summer vacation reading. Even though those books are bloated by all kinds of Coke drinking, logistical chicanery, and wangst, the pages absolutely rip along, like finding a google hole of related self-important blog posts by a group of people who you kind of can’t stand, but also adore and want to have a drink with. I didn’t really track this while I was reading them, as I was too caught up rolling my eyes at the world mechanics – seriously, who is growing food or packing, shipping and delivering all the godamn stuff you assholes are ordering on the Internet – but Grant (possibly slyly) really captures the bullshit teapot tempest feel of the blogosphere. Only two privileged white kids who live with their parents can save us all! But, gosh, it was a lot of fun to read, and perfect for long summer evenings on the back porch. 

So I finished them up last summer, and in the last week of this summer, I discovered there are a bunch of enovellas set in the Newsflesh world. Sign me right up, gin and tonic in hand. San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats feels a little like Hugo-bait (which I see worked, because this was nominated for the Hugo in the novella category for 2013). The Hugo is the more fannish of the sff awards, as it is decided by the participants in World Con, not SFWA or or other more trade-y organizations. Whether that sentence made any sense to you is probably a good indicator of whether this novella will work for you, as Browncoats is aimed pretty solidly at the nerd demographic. A novella about a zombie outbreak at a nerd con being voted on by nerd con participants is a good bet for the win. But hey, I’m a nerd and con goer, also for the win. 

But my nerdery aside, I think Browncoats minimized the things that bug me about the Newsflesh world: the tech-babble and less-than-punchy aphoristic intros and extros, the self-aggrandizement of douches, the shaky social architecture. The novella read much more like a lost chapter from World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, with the whingeing, bloggerly interjections of the After the End Times staff kept to a minimum, and the wide ranging events of the Comic Con outbreak related though multiple perspectives and points of view. My favorite of the End Times staff, Mahir, has gone to interview the last known survivor of Comic Con 2014 thirty years later, and the proceedings have that same Studs Terkel retrospective sensibility which both dampens the immediate arm-wheeling and tinges everything with sadness – two things the Newsflesh world could use more of, imao. 

Con kid Lorelei goes off to sulk in her hotel while her parents set up the Firefly fan booth. A young woman is rescued by a Jedi when a zombie panel attacks. A blind woman and her dog get stuck in the booth. A starlet for a time-travel cop show – “My TV Guide interview was six paragraphs about my boobs and how they fit into my suit” – is abandoned by her handler with newlywed fans. There’s a lot of geek hat-tips to Who or the “fake geek girl” thing or – obviously – the Whedonverse, while pulling off a pretty good outbreak in a locked room scenario. 

Per usual with Newsflesh, I have some serious questions about Kellis-Amberlee, the disease that causes the zombiism, and why the zombies seem to hold off for a period other than narrative convenience and if they’re actually dead and stuff, but that’s not really no nevermind. One of the things I like about Grant’s novels is that the zombies are actually called zombies, not some coy new term. That a convention center full of geeks would leap to the term and start trying to hash out the “rules” for the outbreak based on fiction, even if they get it wrong, felt refreshing. Too often characters in fiction seem never to have heard of zombies, despite the zombie’s half-century of existence in its modern mobbing guise. 

So, my read of this was a perfect storm of situation and personality, aimed solidly at my demographic, fixing some broken things for me, and, ah, the drone of cicadas. It’s probably also the only of the novellas I’ve read so far that I might even recommend to people who haven’t read the trilogy, because as an episodic back story piece, you don’t really have to get into the whole thing. Fed is an alternate ending on Feed, and as such, is a major spoiler, and How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea occurs after the Newsflesh events, and is stupid. I haven’t read Countdown, but I will, Oscar, I will. It’s like 90 degrees and the first day of school, and for sure I can get it in before the leaves turn and the first homework is assigned. Allons-y! Rise up while you can!

The Days Grow Longer: The Age Of Wonder

I feel slightly apologetic about how much I loved reading The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, because it would be easy to sit down and enumerate all the things that are going to bother other people. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and do that right now. But I still adored this, despite its occasional weakness, because I closed this book and wafted around the cabin for at least half a day, completely filled with this bittersweet nostalgia and a strangely pleasant sense of doom. I keep telling people about it like an albatross. Which doesn’t really work as a metaphor, but whatever. 

The Age of Miracles reminds me very strongly of the films Melancholia and Another Earth, which are both nominally science fictional, but have trained their interest on the emotional upheavals of the protagonists much more than on whatever scientific bunkum was used to hand-wave the scenario. Here, the scenario that the earth’s rotation has begun slowing, somewhat rapidly at first – each day adding on hours, then even the slowing slowing. The story is told retrospectively from the point of view of Julia, who was eleven at the start of the slowing. 

According to the interview in the back of the book, the idea for this came from the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami*, which was such a large geological event that it sped up the spin of earth by several microseconds and affected the tilt of the earth by a few centimeters. But, as the article I link to humanely observes, “The shortening of Earth’s day is no cause for consternation, particularly in light of the huge humanitarian crisis sparked by Sunday’s events. The death toll from the tsunami that lashed coasts across the Indian Ocean has now passed 100,000.” (The death toll would eventually rise to well over 230,000 people, with millions displaced.) The real story is not in wonky science facts, but in the lives affected the facts, which is why I don’t care about strict plausibility in why the slowing happened. If you’re the kind of reader who is bothered by the lack of scientific explanation in, say, The Road, then this isn’t the book for you. (Also, jeez, tin man.) 

The slowing isn’t devastating at first, more this tension of not knowing and disruption. There’s no looting and rioting – least not in Julia’s quiet suburb – more post-9/11-ish worry and can-hoarding and not going to work for a week until you decide that there’s nothing to be done, so you go back and live your life, even though everything is wrong and probably won’t be right again. Julia’s best friend – from a large, Mormon family, decamps to a settlement in Utah for some time, leaving Julia alone in the way only 11-year-old girls who have lost their best friends can be lonely. And when the bff comes back, she’s switched best friends and lets Julia know in the cruel way of the young that Julia was out. 

This never happened to me, but it did happen to my bff Christina, whom I picked up on the rebound from Annie. Annie had a new best friend every year, and while the friend-drop usually happened during summer break, in the fifth grade it happened inexplicably mid-year, and suddenly Annie was everywhere with Libby, freezing out Christina. I still remember Christina, in this weird bit of a shrug, identifying the fourth grade friend of Annie, the one she had replaced. She knew. God, that age is such a shitshow, and Walker captures it like fireflies in a jar, which you watch blinking in the darkness like wonder, and when you wake up, it’s just dead black bugs you shake out apologetically into the grass. Grass that’s dying, and then dead, and eventually you can’t remember the smell of grass because it’s extinct. 

And while I said there isn’t a real tight explanation for why the slowing is happening, the details of how people would react to the lengthening days and long nights felt true. People in the arctic go nuts during the white nights. My uncle worked for the National Health Service in Alaska – up in the crazy hard to get to parts – and his stories of the bleary, easy to upset children playing basketball in the bright midnight, their parents given up on porches with longnecks, would not be out of place. The authorities decide to put everyone on “clock time” – living according to a 24 hour clock, despite the sun or lack – because “real time” while Romantic, just keeps stretching and stretching into madness. But it’s all madness: the clocks, the sun, the dark, the slow, beautiful, horrible end of it all that doesn’t really end but just drips slowly. 

I bought a bunch of canned goods and water after I got screwed recently with a four day power outage after a storm downed trees and snapped lines all over the metro – which sucked, thank you – and I can see the water already evaporating, the expiration dates on the can ticking toward botulism. “That was the last day I tasted pineapple,” says Julia, the last day of whales, confused by the changing magnetosphere, beached and dying, the last day of birds. My husband and I have the “bigger problems” caveat when we talk about end of the world scenarios – who gives about the Internet or kissing boys or your parents slow, ugly implosion or whatnot when cannibal corpses are hungering for your flesh – but really, this is all smaller problems in the way that makes me think that smaller problems are only and ever the kind of problems to focus on. The water is going to evaporate. The bigger problems are so big as to be untouchable. 

I don’t know. Or, I guess I do know that The Age of Miracles will be dismissed as young adult literature for girls by some. As a woman who was once a girl who occasionally reads young adult literature, I can say this isn’t really aimed at teens: it’s too slow, too sorrowful, too retrospective. The Julia in the unknown future who is recounting this time period is a ghost, a mirage, and her reticence to explicate the details of her future existence shines the story into a welter of its own mirage, an oasis of all of the last things which are also first things. The first last things until the bigger problems came home, the time when everything slowed like lost summers. 

This isn’t going to work for a lot of people, I know, and that makes me a little sad. Sad not because I wish everyone could be like me, or have my childhood or my occasional despair which would make this work for them, but because my heart is somewhere in this mess, beating slowly in its real time, which is Romantic and untimely unworkable, but it’s the only heart I’ve got. Look here: my heart. Its days grow longer. But the days grow short here at the end of summer, the sky gone purple before it’s time to put the kids to bed. My daughter is asleep on the couch, and I will carry her to her childhood dreams. Amen. 

*Also, Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds was based on some of particulars of Indian Ocean Tsunami – I hate to say “inspired by” because that’s a gross way to put it – just as a random fact.

Day by Day Armageddon

When I was in the 8th grade, my English teacher pulled one of those Lord of the Flies-style writing experiments on us. I have this feeling that the background of this writing experiment had something to do with House of Stairs, which we read at about the same time. House of Stairs is an oddball little YA fiction which is about a group of children being ‘sperimented on by a totalitarian regime which includes, I believe, a taxonomy of personal ethical states which caused a fair amount of consternation. (I should really reread that, because a lot of it has drifted in the intervening *coughcough* years.) 

Anyway, the writing experiment had us pretending to be on a plane going on some kind of exchange program, but then the plane crashed and we were all stuck on a desert island without any adult supervision. We were split up into groups, or I think more accurately, we split ourselves into groups, and then went wandering off in search of food or shelter or whatever. The teacher would periodically lob pieces of paper with events scrawled on them – a storm, or an attack of bees or something – that we would have to incorporate into our teen survivalist narratives as we wrote furiously about how we found a pineapple tree so we wouldn’t starve tonight. (Editorial comment from the teacher: pineapples grow on bushes.) 

We never did split into factions and try to kill each other, at least within the confines of the survivalist teen story playing out in class, though I think it would be accurate to say we were already split into factions and trying to kill each other in real life. The teacher – whose name I’m struggling to remember – would explain certain things in her lobbed paperballs – like how we were all suffering from some kind of poisoning because we weren’t boiling our water, and then we’d duly figure out that we should be boiling our water and incorporate it in our stories. It’s kind of embarrassing how we just went for the most obvious physical solution to whatever trouble she tossed our way, totally ignoring the very real, very social-combat stuff we were living day-to-day, but then we were 13, and she was kind of a psycho for trying to get us to kill each other fictionally. The writing experiment ended with Zuckerman getting eaten by sharks after going mad, and then we got rescued. My frame narrative was that I was in a psych ward, having gone nuts after my experience on the island. I’m sure my story was hugely insensitive to actual mental illness, but then it doesn’t exist anymore, except as a half-memory, so I’m safe. 

I thought of this teenage writing experiment when I was reading Day by Day Armageddon, being the point of this anecdote. Our possibly unnamed narrator – though I wasn’t paying close enough attention to key on a name-drop – starts a diary on New Year’s Day after being sent back to San Antonio on leave from the US Navy. He chats a bit about Christmas with his folks in Alabama (or possibly Arkansas; I can’t differentiate between the two because I’m a sucky Northerner) then sketchy stuff starts happening in China, then the US. Narrator dude seems to have a preternatural sense of when to fortify the house, like someone were lobbing authorial information from on high, which he does with an outrageous attention to detail. I believe he even specifies the size of drill bit when he screw-guns some plywood up on the lower windows. 

Narrator dude – forthwith to be ND – hangs out in his house a lot, obsessively watching tv, trying to get through to his folks, and rationing his MREs. The walking dead start hanging around the house, so he dispatches them with fire in a way that seems like it would end in the neighborhood getting torched, but whatever. He eventually meets up with a neighbor – an engineer, you know – and then they picaresque around the zombie apocalypse hijacking planes from small airports and trying to find a safe place to be. ND and neighbor (Dave?) end up on an island for a while, which seems like it might be sweet, but then the island is big enough to have a shitton of walking dead on it, but too small to have much in the way of necessary foodstuffs and whatnot. 

So. Before I start and-then and-then and-then-ing like this novel, I should probably pull back and talk about some higher level shit. I read the first maybe third of this novel a half dozen years ago, when Bourne was writing it as a serial internet narrative thing. This book was one of the early Internet book phenomenons, back when such a thing was notable. (And I’m using the term “phenomenon” pretty loosely, but his blogging did result in for realz publication, which was something back in the day. Maybe it is still notable; I don’t know.) I didn’t want to go on with it at the time, because it’s so…hokey? straightforward? but then I recently decided to check out the really pulp edges of the zombie genre, and here I am. 

The shitty editing and overall bollocks of this novel can be chalked to its diary format, which makes me a little resentful of the diary format. Is it fair to give embarrassing grammar a pass just because the book is supposed to be a diary, and it’s not like people bother with grammar all that much when they don’t think anyone is watching? I’m going with no, because despite the cutesy intentionality of all the scribbles and underlining, typos is typos, and those are some fucking typos. That said, this was a delightfully wonky read written by someone who obviously knows his way around various hardware. I’m going to guess that Bourne himself is a military dude just like ND, and there’s a lot of really detailed descriptions of guns & ammo, and a refreshingly sensible take on how things might work, or not, in the zombie apocalypse. He calculates head shot radios and amount of ammunition left. He nerds out on tech. 

There are zero characters – not even ND, who is more a collection of MacGuyver-like skills than a person – but the narrative occasionally slips up into something like a voice. ND has ticks, like the phrase “no joy” when something goes wrong, but he’s pretty squeamish about emotions. Neighbor-possibly-Dave has to kill his wife, and starts bugging out emotionally for a while, and while ND notes this, he doesn’t do anything to correct it. It just sort of works its way out conveniently without any comment. Various chapters end with the question, “why am I living?” Which, good one, because other than a few brief moments where things aren’t shit, there’s not much to live for other than gun-cleaning and food-sourcing. Even the action scenes are bloodless, and often rushed to the point of not registering. 

So, this was fun to read on a hangover Sunday, but it’s not, like, good on any kind of technical level. Cool, arresting images are squandered, like the zombie on a crucifix thing which might be becoming a trope, and was dealt with insanely awesomely in Zombie in a Penguin Suit (Question: what’s black and white and red all over? Answer: AHHHHH.) A number of events parallel This Dark Earth, but that has a ton more style, and actually engages the diary format in one of its sections as a device. (But Wittgenstein’s Mistress blows everything out of the water in terms of post-apocalyptic diary format, not that it’s even fair to mention.) I don’t really care where this goes, because I have no one to invest in, but it was fun while it lasted. It’s almost refreshing to read something so little interested in the questions of what makes us human and how to construct a reasonable society in zombie fiction. I’ll just be here running the numbers and cleaning my guns.

Ice by Anna Kavan

I woke up (on that June 2nd) from a very vivid dream. In my dream, two people were having an intense conversation in a meadow in the woods. One of these people was just your average girl. The other person was fantastically beautiful, sparkly, and a vampire. They were discussing the difficulties inherent in the facts that A) they were falling in love with each other while B) the vampire was particularly attracted to the scent of her blood, and was having a difficult time restraining himself from killing her immediately.

Stephenie Meyer, from her Twilight FAQ

I don’t think I’m going to rate Ice by Anna Kavin, as I don’t think I can say I liked it – like is such a degraded term – but I also feel a fiercely uncomfortable kinship with its dead-eyed wonder. I think if I’d read this 20 years ago, I would have gone one of two ways. Either I’d dismiss it as plotless mind-fuckery – using, no doubt, a brilliant metaphor involving an emperor’s sartorial stylings or lack thereof – or I’d enact that uncomfortable bullshit of pretending to understand something I didn’t get. Maybe I’m not giving younger me enough credit, and I’m not trying to humble-brag that I get this now by trashing my younger self. I believe Ice is ultimately un-get-able, probably intentionally so (not that that factors for me, entirely), but in a way that speaks to several of my personal obsessions: the housewife in fiction, post-apocalyptic landscapes, the harder to describe slipperiness of mid-century female writers. Ice, for me, reads as a daughter of Story of O, fraught with the eroticism of landscape and decay, the brutalization of half-sketched girl through the eyes of half-sketched men, written by a woman who, like Pauline Réage, ran her identity like artwork itself. 

Nameless characters in a post-apocalyptic dream state enact a chilly, brutal love triangle.* There is a man, and another man – sometimes a warden, sometimes a husband – and they tug-of-war over the image of a sylph-like girl who is described dismissively by her hair color and her victimhood. She cowers, there. Her wrists become bruised. Her mother was cruel and taught her submission. The man – who is the main character – alternately murders her and tries to rescue her from the other man, sometimes at once. Locations bleed from one to the next; walls of ice rear up or cower themselves, in the distance; concrete details of flat-letting and luncheons dissolve into war and radiation. The girl is trussed and murdered a thousand times, or she isn’t, and everywhere she is half out-of-sight, a mirage in a damp-smelling room or a field of trees lit by moonlight and her bare, frozen feet are blue against the snow. Or the warden’s eyes are blue like a gem whose name the narrator can’t recall. Ice is infuriating until it poleaxes you, like the dream I had last night of a bunch of gossipy chatter at a picnic with a bunch of friends that did a focus-in, dolly-out on a creature, made of smoke, who sought possession of me and mine and I ran until I was screaming and my husband woke me up, telling me I was shouting in my sleep. Exactly like that. 

Like with Story of O, I’m maybe more interested in Kavan’s fascinating biography than I am with the text itself. Born to ex-pat Britons in France, people who are primarily referred to as cold, she was a heroine addict through most of her adult life. This is often described as medicinal, as she suffered from what we would pigeonhole as depression, and she herself was unrepentant about her addictions. She burned all her correspondences and most of her diaries near the end of her life, saying, “I was about to become the world’s best-kept secret; one that would never be told. What a thrilling enigma for posterity I should be.” And how, woman. Way to rock the fuck out of self-as-art. I can see thousands of sophomore-level papers about ice-as-addiction or ice-as-domestic-panic, and they wouldn’t be wrong, exactly, but they would also hugely fail. Ice might be the artifact of biography, but wrestling this bear down with life details won’t do. We shall not be going to the lighthouse today. 

“For now she need not think of anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of – to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others… and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures.”

To the LighthouseVirginia Woolf

I read this up at the cabin, in snatches, like something stolen. In the category of post-apocalyptic post-Modern meta-mind-fuckery I’ve read at the cabin, I’m going to give the award to Wittgenstein’s Mistress, but it’s probably not wise to conflate the two. When my friend Alexis showed up with her daughter so we could enact our own lighthouse-not-going with the kids, we walked over the harsh geology of the north shore and shit-talked books and people. She’d read the back-flap of Ice, which likened Kavan to a raft of female authors, for no discernible reason other than they had lady-parts, and then named a raft of people she influenced, all male. Sure, it’s just blurb-craft bullshit, but it is also A Thing, this melting fulcrum of the pen spurting out its translations between the genders and influence and anxiety and all manner of Bloomian bullshit. 

Bullshit, she said, and pointed to the land, this mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon. 

Whatever. 

I am losing my coherence, the way I do. But I started with Stephenie Meyer talking about Bella Swann, that girl in the gloaming imagined by a woman asleep, the day before her kids were to start swimming lessons which would give her the brief stolen moments to write her dream of a girl being fought over like a bone by boyish monsters, her blood in the snow, her warm chastity, his chilly skin like a wall of ice. Sometimes when we dream, women dream of being killed by men. You can collapse the narrative of Ice with fractal precision into its opening and closing lines: “I was alone” and then, “The weight of the gun in my pocket was reassuring.” The rest is geometry, and the angles cut. 

*Though I admit my use of the term love triangle is primarily a troll – let’s see how many people run up in the defense of the seriousness of the literary qualities of this book – I’m somewhat douchily trying to enact the gendered ways we approach literature of all stripes. Love triangle is a dismissive term – oh, sigh, another girl thinks she’s average-special enough for a ream of hot guys to love her to the point of annihilation, which is, here, absolutely the fucking point, or not, who knows what the point it? There is no spoon. Do or do not. Both, motherfucker. None.

All Politics is Feudal: This Dark Earth

So, I was recently watching The Dark Knight Rises, and kind of craughing to myself about what a brilliant expression of post-9/11 fascism it is. I don’t mean the term “fascist” in its sloppy usage of “stuff I don’t like” or “dad”, but the more old school definition of authoritarian militarism that positions the arbiter of justice not in law, but in an idealized übermench, you know, with your usual racial and nationalistic overlay on what makes the mench über. Bad guy Bane talks a lot of shit about giving power back to the People – invoking the dialectical enemy of fascism, communism – but as a fascist tract, there is literally one person who might be considered “the people” with a speaking part, and that’s Catwoman’s wing-girl. She has maybe three lines. The police state and the über-police state are pretty much the only important players in a city of 11 million, the People existing either to cheer Batman or drag rich people from their homes dumbly. It’s pretty much a Leni Riefenstahl film, both in terms of ideology, and stunningly beautiful fascist aesthetics. 


A diver in the 1936 Olympics, photographed by Riefenstahl

Putting aside some lumpy plotting – which no doubt was caused by Heath Ledger’s untimely death after so perfectly capturing hysterical nihilism in The Dark Knight (and I’m glad they didn’t re-cast the Joker) – The Dark Knight Rises brilliantly expresses the not-so-latent fascism of the superhero story. It’ll be interesting to see what the Nolanizing of Superman comes up with in Man of Steel, because Superman was your granddaddy’s very first anti-fascist American fascist superhero. (Sometimes you gotta fight fascism with fascism, apparently.) Somehow I don’t think it’ll work, because Superman is boring, and the best fascists have some chutzpah. The old fanboy saw is that Kent is the disguise, and overpowered aliens posing as dorks are hard to put the banners up for. Squeeze out that single tear, fascists, then we’ll root for you. 

Anyway, some what belabored point being that I was reading This Dark Earthat the same time, and kinda musing to myself about all the post-9/11, fear state, how-will-we-maintain-our-humanity-in-the-face-of-terror that I see as endemic to the zombie narrative. This Lord of the Flies with cannibal corpses has been going on at the very least since 9/11, but certainly bubbling there in Romero’s game-changer, Night of the Living Dead, where he rips the shit out of the American nuclear family and societal structures, and probably even earlier in your older school Voodoo sorcerer controlling reanimated slaves folklore. (Sophomore level paper topic: taking the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead as a structure that symbolizes the Freudian psychological model – id as basement, ego as main floor, superego as attic – map the movement of the characters within this landscape as pertains to societal construction. Et cetera.) 

So, This Dark Earth is, in some ways, a very traditional zombie story, starting in a hospital becoming overrun as the doctor very slowly accepts what is occurring around her, complete with zombie infants and a chemical dump outside of town. A basement-bound reunion of mother and child, a bullet in the brain of a turned husband, a military group using a woman as rape fodder and mama, a barbed wire settlement slipping towards feudalism, a girl writing notes that she’s sure no one will read – it’s all there, and more – the wrangling and hand-wringing of the boy grown into a world with new rules, the prince of this new dark earth. The steam train. The slavers. Jacobs hits all of this, lightly, humanely, with an eye toward the individual that I feel gets lost in a lot of zombie stories, somewhat perversely. Even with very large time shifts, the pacing is furious while still managing a tightly personal tone. 

A lot of people are going to invoke AMC’s The Walking Dead with this book – and I guess I am too – but this book checks a lot of the stupid societal bullshit of that show – Rick shouting about how “this isn’t a democracy” and then getting his ass bitten by eye-patched demagogues (but not literally, of course), Carl turning into a squint-eyed tiny badass, the rheumy moral mouthpiece wondering “but at what cost?” I’m still into Walking Dead for the set-pieces, because those continue to thrill, but I have no patience for the people or the society of that show. And I’ve lost patience with the characters of Walking Dead because it never comes out and owns the inherent fascism of the zombie survivor community, not with any finesse anyway. Breathers are all imbued with exceptionalism in the zombie apocalypse. It’s numbers; that’s all. But on Walking Dead, Rick gets to be touched with the invisible hand of narrative superiority/safety, lending his leadership a sort of unassailable divinity that should just suck it. This Dark Earth addresses that impulse to feudalism, and it does so while being beautiful in an unshowy way. 

I almost don’t want to recommend it to your average non-horror reader, because I think what Jacobs is doing is subtle, this slow, personal invocation of all the tropes of the genre, that sets them all up and knocks them all down, slowly, like a steam boiler, like cancer. Death is the greatest democracy there is; we all have our one vote. Survivalist groups in the zombie apocalypse are often pictured as Spartan paramilitary camps set against the undead Athenian mob. I think that we tend to conceptualized survival this way shows our instinct towards feudalism – the dictatorial Governor in Walking Dead growling about terrorists, the slaver in This Dark Earth looking for a king to behead. Both Carl and the “Prince” here are positioned as the members of the New World Order, unable to remember the world before the mob, groomed in violent expediency to threats both real and imagined. I’m not sure where Walking Dead is going to go with Carl, but I have my suspicions, and I’m already girding my loins for disingenuous speeches about honor and stuff. 

this is not a democracy anymore, it's a ricktatorship with an image of Rick Grimes from Walking Dead

Observe Jacobs, instead:

The world loves a tomato because it’s red. The apple is red too. But the tomato’s flesh is the flesh of mankind.

Do the dead love the flesh of man because it is like a tomato? We’ll never know. But I have my suspicions.

As the matriculating Prince observes as he filches tomatoes from their tenuous garden. There are times when this is too much, like in an overtly symbolic sequence that has our boy crucified, quite literally, on an exit ramp sign, but then Southern Gothic (which this book is also, in many ways) often can’t help its dips into histrionic religious imagery. Jacobs runs this linear and time-skipping narrative hand-over-hand, from one point of view character to the next, which I believe works beautifully with the stakes and danger of the undead-filled world: you will hear this voice, but you will not know when this voice will end, or if it will pick up again on the edges of another person’s story. Knock-out’s sequence, and the boys on the steam train were especially tight. (And I have another sophomore paper topic ruminating about the train as it fits into the American landscape as some kind of echo of industrialism and colonial expansion, but I haven’t worked out all the kinks.) Certainly, This Dark Earth isn’t reinventing the wheel in terms of zombie narratives, but I thought it dealt with the tropes in a thoughtful manner, which for me can be much more enjoyable than genre-confounding gimmicks or the like. I, for one, welcome our zombie apocalypse feudal overlords, at least as described by John Hornor Jacobs. Hail to the king, baby. 

Love & Zombies by Eric Shapiro

Love & Zombies by Eric Shapiro is one of those things I haven’t known what to say about because experience isn’t reflection. I enjoyed reading it, but I’m not sure I can say anything smart about it. I blew through a bunch of novellas all in row, which made me have a whole thing about what makes a good novella versus a novel or a short story, but then I waited too long to write any of those thoughts down. But let’s see if I can recreate some of it. 

First off, the novella is a funny beast, occupying an odd middle distance. Novellas can fail in a lot of ways: not concise enough, meaning they should have been cut to a short story, or taking on too much, meaning they should be a novel. (And the latter might not actually be true, because some of my most hated books were expanded from short stories and/or novellas.) I feel like this book fell into the latter category, in that there was a lot going on, but expanding this scenario would only weaken it, while the specific aims of the story needed a little more time. The most successful novellas I’ve read often occur in already established worlds, so the exposition is just gestural, and then we can go from there. It was the exposition stuff that didn’t work so great for me here, so. 

Love & Zombies starts with a very satisfying first person voice: self-effacing while self-aggrandizing, and just freaking funny. The way he introduces you to the other characters – a girlfriend, an asshole best friend – was really grand, with a lapping, anecdotal quality I enjoyed. Turns out the asshole friend wants to pull some ill-conceived and unethical job for a cuss-ton of money, and our protagonist goes along with it for pretty stupid and illogical reasons. Which was okay by me, because I’ve certainly done stupid things for stupid friends, and I’ve probably stupidly entreated friends to do stupid things for me, and sometimes they’ve even gone along with it. Childhood friends especially, because even though we were just friends because of proximity, when you think about it, nostalgia plays its ugly hand.

The set up is very pulpy, and therefore pretty bananas. Main character dude is feeling emasculated because his hot girlfriend is possibly too GGG, and he’s not feeling worthy of her. This kind of amazing perfect gf for an admitted loser could piss me off, but our MC actually acknowledges that his feeling are dumb, and doesn’t put his crap on her. The stupid, unethical thing in this case is to drive out into the Nevada desert from California, find a zombie, and then squire her to Las Vegas, which is where everything, in pulp style, goes even more pear-shaped. 

Oh, did I mention there were zombies? This being one of the things that didn’t work so great for me in this novella. Apparently there have been zombie outbreaks all over the flyover states, but places like southern California have heretofore been untouched by the zombie plague. Which, fine; maybe my irritation with this set up is that I live in a flyover state full of zombies, so this sort of coastal insouciance about the zombie plague reads a little lame. I think it works in the whole personal metaphors of the main character, so it’s fine, but it doesn’t work on a nuts-and-bolts nerd world-building level. I guess I’m just saying that the world doesn’t make any sense, except as a personal metaphor, which is why this both works and doesn’t as a novella. You can’t expand it, but you can’t contract it either. 

I’ll just say: I liked the voice on this thing a lot. The main character is right: I may not like him, but I love his girlfriend, or maybe I just like how he talks about his girlfriend. (Which is another thing: as much as he talks about the girlfriend, I didn’t feel like I got enough screen-time from her to really dig her, except as a construct of the protagonist. Which is also fine, on some levels, because it’s about him thinking about her and not her. Just, it would have been nice to get a third act snap where you see what he says about her from a slightly different vantage, which would be her vantage. First person though, whatever.) 

I liked the near-zombie girl and the throats she rips out half-pretending to zombification. I also liked a lot of choices made by the protagonist, because while nostalgia may be sweet, his friend was a huge asshole. I’m not enamored of the tie-up, which read too cutesy perfect for me. Maybe the average novella should end with blood on the floor, because we don’t have the investment in your usual novelistic HEA. Maybe. It’s possible I’m bloodthirsty in my needs. 

Two of the novellas I read in my novella week were DarkFuse titles: this and Worm by Tim Curran. Worm was decidedly more about gross pulp thrills, while this was more voice-driven, with a chatting, hipster douchebag protagonist and his admittedly stupid problems. You could almost smoosh them up into a single hot novel, something with killer voice and killer kills. I kind of did that by reading them back to back, which I would recommend. The nice thing about novellas is you can put them down in a sitting, much like a zombie. Love, however, takes more than a headshot to vanquish. A worthy take-home, all told. 

Thank you,NetGalley, for the ARC.