The Making of Zombie Wars is the first book I’ve read by Aleksandar Hemon, a critically acclaimed novelist and the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, and it’s probably going to be the last. Zombie Wars has moments of great writing and flawless comedy, but those passages are all but buried in a morass of predictable plotting, failed attempts at physical comedy and a denouement that left me thinking, “Is that it?”
The book’s main character is Joshua Levin, a frustrated screenwriter living in Chicago in the days leading up to the second Iraq War. His landlord, Stagger, is a veteran of the first Iraq War prone to occasional psychotic episodes. Joshua has a steady if unrewarding job teaching ESL and a beautiful, accomplished girlfriend who—as his family never tires of reminding him—is far too good for him. He’s also in a screenwriting workshop where the students are much better at belittling each other than they are at writing marketable scripts.
The book starts off with a montage of the thoughts running through Joshua’s head as he ponders a comically bad idea for a screenplay:
…a comic book geek and a retired superhero (the Snakeman), ungainfully employed as a public school English teacher, team up to fight the evil mayor of Chicago. Joshua was incapable of deciding whether the Snakeman would die at the end or go back to teaching—the truly heroic activity in the city of Chicago.
The setting soon shifts to Joshua’s screenwriting workshop, in a scene that’s supposed to be funny but isn’t. At the beginning of class, Joshua somehow accidentally gets his underwear twisted around his testicles. Truly nasty class discussion (“Maybe you should make this dude more of a real person….maybe [a] loser. Like Josh here.”) is punctuated with references to the Joshua’s awkward torment.
Failed attempts at physical humor abound in the book, as well as writing that’s extremely bad or simply bizarre. In a bedroom scene in which Joshua’s trying to persuade his girlfriend to have sex, he’s described as “holding her at dickpoint.” In a passage describing a ride through a residential neighborhood with no communist themes or motifs that I can detect, Hemon describes the car as being “forced into a great leap forward.”
Reflecting on everything that’s wrong with Hemon’s prose brings to mind advice that I think every male writer should take: don’t describe women’s breasts. I can’t think of a single one who’s done it well. Even Shakespeare blew it. The offense was committed in his poem The Rape of Lucrece: “ivory globes circled by blue/A pair of maiden worlds yet unconquered.”
See? Told you.
Hemon’s first offense on this score occurs in a scene in which Joshua develops a disastrous lust for his buxom student Ana, who constantly readjusts her bra, making “her breasts leap like happy little animals.” As if that wasn’t enough to ruin the scene, Hemon then makes a failed attempt at comic wordplay with commonplace expressions, as Joshua tries to “swallow a huge lump in his throat: at first it went down, but it came up tumescent.” Later in the novel we meet Ana’s teenage daughter Alma, who is described at one point as having “puppy breasts,” which gave me the disquieting mental image of puppies crawling out of her chest.
There are moments that redeem Hemon’s writing. A scene in which Joshua, his sister, and their mother are crammed into an SUV with Alma, Ana, and Stagger is a showcase of dialogue and comic timing and a masterful depiction of soul-crushing family dynamics.
At other times, Hemon shows he is capable of making Joshua an empathetic, almost likeable character, as Joshua reflects on the stunning mystery and variety of existence: “There were worlds of living creatures Joshua would never see, still trusting blindly that actually existed;” or on how our media-saturated society can profoundly cripple people’s psyches:
The dread of life: that there is always far more to people than the commercials claim. Nobody really lived all that happiness you could see on television, in magazines, everywhere around you. Who was the first person to declare happiness? They should’ve shot the bastard, right then and there.
I wanted to read a novel about that Joshua Levin. While I realize Joshua’s development into that person is central to the novel, Hemon gave me almost nothing to help me enjoy getting there.