Perhaps if they all remained silent for as long as possible, they’d slip out of this moment and into the next, and then the next one, until all the proceeding moments were erased from memory and everything could start all over again. The ultimate American Dream: the eternal present, where nothing has ever happened before what is happening now. – Joshua Levin, in Alexsandar Hemon’s The Making of Zombie Wars.
When literary darlings who’ve been at it a while aren’t cursed with amazing sales, they’ll sometimes take a turn toward the commercial. Remember when Macarthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize Finalist Colson Whitehead’s fifth book was a zombie novel, and it was a New York Times Bestseller (and also awesome)? Glen Duncan wrote seven critically-acclaimed, barely-sold novels before writing a bestselling werewolf trilogy (which turned out to be a further exploration of the human condition, just like his previous work). The first two books in Justin Cronin’s planned vampire trilogy, The Passage and The Twelve, have been sales monsters, but he started out with rave reviews for his first two novels, a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, and no commercial success.
Aleksandar Hemon – Guggenhiem Fellowship winner and MacArthur Fellow, National Book Award Finalist for The Lazarus Project, and three-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award – feels like a prime candidate to take a turn for Genre fiction. After two novels, two short story collections, and a memoir, Hemon is considered a master of the written word who is mostly compared to Nabokov. Then along came The Making Of Zombie Wars. Time to hit the sales charts, right?
But rather than a literary writer’s take on the zombie apocalypse, The Making of Zombie Wars is about a few weeks in the life of a struggling screenwriter. Well, who needed another zombie book anyway?
Few writers can tell you as much about a character with so few keystrokes, and none can turn from humor to pathos as quickly and masterfully. Hemon has a handle on the absurd, on over-the-top characters that would curdle to caricature in a lesser writer’s hands.
The only “failing” (if you can call it that) of The Making of Zombie Wars is its scope; Joshua Levin’s concerns are small, his thoughts claustrophobic, but it’s that devotion to his inner workings – the self-serving justifications, the self-sabatoging acts, the largely ineffectual attempts to be better – which make the book special. I’ve read more than a few protagonists fighting to leave an extended adolescence behind and find themselves as men, and more than a few who tested the limits of likability, but I didn’t root for any of them like I rooted for Joshua Levin.
Of course, that could be because of his “profession,” or more precisely, his struggles to turn a hobby / metal tick into a profession. Hemon had me from the first paragraph:
Now, what could I do with the boy? Joshua asked himself… what if he said nothing? What if he was the strong, silent type? Why this and not that? Writing is nothing if not carrying the hopeless, backbreaking burden of decisions devoid of consequences.
When you’re editing, editing, editing, and wondering whether a character should find his nephew’s behavior worrisome, or be worried by his nephew’s behavior, or be concerned about his nephew, or want to slap some sense into his nephew, or or or… “carrying the hopeless, backbreaking burden of decisions devoid of consequences.” Yeah, you kinda are.
Actually, Hemon had me from the page before, a prologue where we get a summary of Script Ideas:
It kills me how plausible they are. If there’s one thing clever writers with original voices love to do, it’s skewer cliches. Hemon enjoys himself here, and with the ideas throughout, and we love being in on the joke because we’re clever enough to be reading him instead of watching schlock like this. And because, seriously, most movies are shit.
Will Levin make a decent boyfriend? Will his living situation improve? Will he ever finish a script? All I can say is that I thoroughly enjoyed watching Levin make a mess of his life; I’m sure you will too.