The Making of Zombie Wars: A Novel
- By Aleksandar Hemon
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- 320 pp.
- Reviewed by Alice Stephens
- July 9, 2015
A darkly comic portrait of a man and a country stuck in arrested development.
In this nation built by immigrants, is today’s Great American Novel being written by them? With books like Americanah and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, it seems those most adept at capturing contemporary American culture and zeitgeist are newcomers.
Aleksandar Hemon, author of The Making of Zombie Wars, was visiting the United States in 1992, just as war broke out in his native country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Rather than return to his hometown of Sarajevo, he stayed in America.
Author of a number of highly praised books, including The Lazarus Project, a National Book Award finalist, Hemon wrote, in a heart-wrenching, deeply insightful 2011 New Yorker essay describing the illness and death of his baby daughter, that “fiction [is] a basic evolutionary tool of survival.” We make sense of the human experience through stories. This explains the enduring power of the archetypal tales of ancient texts like The Odyssey, the Athenian tragedies by Sophocles, and the Old Testament.
The advance chatter for The Making of Zombie Wars was so clamorous that the publication date was upped by a month. The flap copy, borrowing a phrase from a screenwriting teacher in the novel, promises “a veritable roller-coaster ride of violence and sex.”
What could be more American than roller-coasters, violence, sex, zombies, and a schlubby man-child protagonist named Joshua Levin?
When he isn’t trying to get beyond the first scene of his screenplays, Joshua teaches ESL to Eastern-European immigrants, tries to build a relationship with his “hot Japanese-American girlfriend, his beautiful Zen mistress,” Kimmy, hangs out at a dive bar with a Bosnian named Bega, and avoids his lunatic landlord, Stagger, who enters uninvited into Joshua’s apartment to sniff his dirty underwear.
Rightly perturbed by this invasion of privacy and the way that Stagger, in typical American amnesiac fashion, tries to pretend the incident never happened, Joshua flees to his girlfriend’s place. For some unfathomable reason, Kimmy wants to take their relationship to another level and suggests that they move in together.
But we wouldn’t have a story if Joshua didn’t fuck it all up. He sleeps with one of his students, a sexy Bosnian immigrant named Ana, who is married to a brutish compatriot who committed dark deeds during the Bosnian War.
That Joshua is stuck in a protracted adolescence is evident in the problems he has with his junk, giving himself wedgies, pissing his pants, and sleeping with another man’s wife; in his “files upon files of script ideas in his computer…most of them [dead] within the first draft of the first scene, unable to take off and come anywhere near a self-sustaining plot”; and in his avoidance of his father after he tells Joshua that he has prostate cancer and his “big-tits babe” second wife has left him.
Every time Joshua is offered the chance to become a responsible adult, he runs the other way. In the words of his frenemy, Bega, Joshua is “normal, little bit of philosopher, maybe loser.”
I’d drop the qualifier; Joshua is definitely a loser, and the female reader is likely to wonder what both Kimmy and Ana see in him. He’s normal — if normal is represented by the drifting, sex-driven characters of Hollywood comedies and literary fiction à la Gary Shteyngart, Philip Roth, John Updike, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera: the stunted white guy who propels the plot forward by choosing his dick over his head and heart again and again.
His “little bit” of a philosophical bent is illustrated by the quasi-Biblical, Spinoza-inspired sentences that wrap up descriptions of the latest in the chain of absurd incidents that make up his life: “It turn out she wore no underwear. He who provides food to all flesh, everlasting is His loving kindness.” Or “She wanted to be buried with those flip-flops. Nothing exists from whose nature some effect does not follow.”
Joshua muses that “the basic task in everyone’s life was pretending it was more than mere survival.” Yet he is not exactly struggling to survive. He’s healthy, Caucasian, and financially solvent. While the Iraq War plays out on the television, his only involvement in it is to make pithy, trenchant observations on its progress.
Joshua’s only problems are the ones he makes for himself.
Dividing the hectic scenes of Joshua’s life are snippets of his screenplay, “Zombie Wars,” in which a ragtag team of humans fights for survival in a world overtaken by the undead.
Zombies, foreign wars, cancer, divorce, infidelity, statutory rape, immigrants adrift in the new world, self-serving and quasi-religious platitudes, John Wayne, broken bones, and bloodied noses. About the only plagues of modern American society missing are guns, obesity, and race.
In the end, it’s a hot mess of a book, just as America is a hot mess of a country. Does that make The Making of Zombie Wars the Great American Novel? Not for this naturalized American. Though the prose is exhilarating and punchy, we’ve seen this story of the privileged white boy stumbling toward maturity too many times.
Alice Stephens writes a regular column for the Independent, Alice in Wordland. Be a pioneer and follow her on twitter at @AliceKSStephens.