I read This Is Not a Testby Courtney Summers in a sitting, absolutely bolting it down to get to the end. Which is funny, in a way, because while the pacing fairly rips along, not a whole hell of a lot actually happens. The story more or less starts in medias res once our surviving principles have made it to the high school* during a zombie apocalypse. Six teenagers have blockaded the doors and worked out how they will live on a day to day basis. Phew! We’re safe-ish! The narrative keeps peeking back to the week it took to get there, the loss of two of the party, but much of the story recounts their boredom and bickering, six kids passing time while they consider their own imminent deaths and the deaths of everyone around them. They find booze in the teachers’ lounge; they enact dubiously considered make-outs; they play basketball.
Which, put that way, sounds like something horrible to read. But two things make it compelling for me. First, the main character, Sloane, is suicidal. Which is an interesting thing to be in a world where walking cannibal corpses are hungering for your flesh. Not long ago I watched Lars von Trier’s “Meloncholia” which has a similar set-up: a depressive managing the last days before the complete end of the world. Von Trier wrote this movie after he had a depressive episode, and in his reading about his state, found that the depressed do better in crisis situations – they don’t panic, because they expected this all along. They move coolly through trauma, because trauma is what they know on a minute-by-minute basis. It’s a dark way to think about it, but Sloane’s lack of affect and emotional deadness were a compelling lens on the usual panic, boredom, panic, speech about life’s preciousness, panic sometimes found in zombie stories. Like, I want to punch that little butterfly tattoo and all of its obnoxious symbolism at the end of Will Smith’s “I Am Legend.” Don’t you dare go all Christ-symbolism on the corpses of everyone I know. That dime store redemption cheapens everything that came before, even if what came before was tedious and boring and juvenile and dumb.
Second, I’m just into Lifeboat-ish situations where people sit around bickering, and in that bickering gesture towards the ways we think society and government should be structured. That’s why I was hook-line-and-sinker for the first two seasons of Lost, the way those characters embodied world-views which are necessarily in conflict: the nihilist, the Lockeian (I mean, it’s right there in John Locke’s name), the Rousseauian, the followers and the would-be heroes. The governmental stuff is dampened a bit here, but there are echoes of Lord of the Flies, with the lone freshman in This is Not a Test standing in for the chorus of unnamed younger boys who shift their allegiances according to who has the political power in Lord of the Flies. In a sequence with an interloping teacher, the concept of “good” society intrudes, putting the kids’ détente into crisis. That was awesome.
And third, even though I realize now I didn’t mention a third thing, I liked how Sloane has her own arc with her abuse by her father and abandonment by her sister, a person arc in all of the societal. I’m not exactly easy with the conclusion, especially with the sister, but I respect Sloane’s first person conclusion. Here is as good as any to complain about one thing: I found it hard to differentiate some of these boys, which led to some weird reading from me where I was like, what? She’s doing what with whom? That can’t be right, but then it wasn’t right because I’d mixed them up. As good as Sloane’s characterization is, the others’ sometimes lacks. Which makes a weird sense in a way, but is still confounding as a reader.
So. I enjoyed this greatly. I’m not sure how to wrap up, other than to say that this is a perfect example of why I loves me some zombie stories: the personal wending with the societal in a locked room with bloody hands on the glass. It even made me forgive the fact that these zombies can run, because that, my friends, is not right.
*And, a goofy thing I enjoyed about their school: it is exactly like mine. South High in Minneapolis was built in the 70s, this almost military bunker style building with few windows and lots of concrete – a perfect place to ride out the zombie apocalypse. Of course, it was built that way because all of the paranoia about student protests of the era – keep us in or keep us out. South’s lack of windows also served to drive us completely mad come February; the few, wan sunlit hours of Midwestern winter spend in a pedagogical bunker. I remember when we’d get our class assignments, my friends and I would compare how many classes we had with windows. Score! I got three!