Future Imperfect

Rodney Dangerfield once had a joke that began, “I said to a bartender, ‘Make me a zombie.’” The bartender’s response: “God beat me to it.” In Aleksandar Hemon’s new novel, The Making of Zombie Wars, there are plenty of people who have been made into the walking dead without their knowing it. As for heavenly beings, the best we get here is Joshua Levin, a schmucky wannabe writer who is not doing so well in his master-of-the-universe role: Throughout the novel, he struggles to pen a no-future apocalyptic screenplay.

The funny thing about this striving filmmaker’s project is that he’s incapable of grasping what his own life will look like the day after tomorrow. In Hemon’s picaresque black comedy, Joshua, a Chicagoan and the aspiring creator of a would-be flick called Zombie Wars, has little talent for comprehending the future—whether he’s writing his screenplay or thinking about his own life’s progression. In one of the novel’s more amusing scenes, Joshua tries to walk the students of the ESL course he teaches by day through the intricacies of the future-perfect tense. It’s clear he hasn’t got any better hold on the grammatical construction than the Soviet émigrés and Eastern European newcomers who have washed up in his classroom. His chalkboard examples (“By the time I am seventy-five I will have had my knees replaced”) aren’t helpful. Challenged by his baffled students to demonstrate how the tense works, he fares no better. The only phrase that comes to him on the spot—“By the time the world ends we will all have lived”—suggests, in fact, that Joshua’s problem isn’t just the nuances of English but a failure of imagination. His inability to properly calibrate his imagination—sometimes there’s too little, sometimes far too much—is a fatal flaw that stalks him across this funny if slight yarn of fallibility and the closely knit relations of reality, fiction, and fantasy, packed into a few short weeks in the artist’s life.

Joshua himself is mostly a disappointment and a fuckup. He’s a master at mentally churning out three- or four-line scenarios for films that, we can be grateful, will never get made. They pepper the plot of The Making of Zombie Wars like sporadic thought bubbles and provide a running commentary on the action, a more-lively imagined version of the life that gets lived in these pages. During a bout of kinky sex with his girlfriend, Kimmy, we get “Script Idea #69: An S&M male porn star falls in love with a gentle poetry professor. When she is kidnapped by his jealous fan, he needs not only to save her but also to tell her the truth about his life. It turns out she loves to dominate. Title: These Chains of Love.” There are scenarios of drug gangs and abductions, of space aliens posing as cabbies, hallucinating rock stars, and Alzheimer’s patients who mistake their wives for mistresses.

The irony of Hemon’s conceit is that Joshua’s story needs little embellishment. It’s a staggeringly and unabashedly madcap misadventure that ensues from an old-fashioned premise: Joshua’s fateful decision to sleep with one of his ESL students, a dimpled
Bosnian named Ana. The seduction is mildly plausible. Ana flirts with him in class (her riff on the future perfect is an invitation to her birthday party that he ought to recognize as a proleptically awful truth: “On Saturday you will have had fun”). Her apartment, he discovers, is a microcosm of multicultural Chicago—present are a Russian owner of a chocolate store who is pitching a lesbian tryst with her; the glowering ex–Soviet army officer from Joshua’s class; another wannabe screenwriter (himself a Bosnian, and himself a veteran of the Balkan conflicts like Ana); and, most imposingly, Ana’s war-fried husband, Esko, who menacingly butchers the roasted carcass of a lamb in the kitchen. Such obvious foreshadowing, the reader may think, ought to indicate to Joshua that shtupping Ana might not be the wisest idea. But of course he carries through with his plan—or at least the plot impels him to do so. A couple of days after an aborted zipless tryst against a classroom map of Israel, the two consummate the affair.

Consummate is the sort of verb of completion that Joshua might use to describe their interaction. But the scenario it kicks into motion makes his overheated cinematic imagination seem jejune by comparison: Joshua barely has time to reflect on his sex- and tranquillity-fueled good fortune of moving in with Kimmy—a preposterously perfect therapist who just happens to live up the block—before, as they say, the war comes home and the plot goes into overdrive. In fact, the narrative seems almost to blur with Joshua’s misadventures: There are sword fights and broken bones, collaterally damaged animals, threats to chop off Joshua’s errant dong—not to mention an epic pot-smoking session and a midnight ride through the streets of Chicago in an oversize sedan called the STAGmobile.

The vehicle belongs to Joshua’s landlord, Stagger, a deranged veteran of the first US war in Iraq, Operation Desert Storm, who is rarely encountered in The Making of Zombie Wars without his sword or without comment on his shirtless appearance. (Hemon’s go-for-it predilection for cartoonishly overdrawing his characters in this novel at least has the benefit of making them vivid in the reader’s head.) If it’s hard to take Stagger’s symptoms at face value—we first see him as Joshua stumbles upon him rifling through his dirty laundry and sniffing a pair of his own red-white-and-blue underwear—he’s still one of the most vibrantly undead of the war vets in Hemon’s book, a manic and farcical all-American inflection of apparent PTSD in sharp contrast with Esko’s shell-shocked Bosnian experience.

Mark Burban

If this sounds like a plot-heavy assessment, it is, for the simple reason that The Making of Zombie Wars offers too little of what has made Hemon such a powerful writer over the past decade—and too little for the reader to hold on to outside the baroque features of its over-the-top narrative. The themes he explores here were richly developed in his previous novel, The Lazarus Project (2008), in which he employed all his gifts as a writer to examine a beautifully imagined Bosnian displacement, with the shadows of the Sarajevo past cast over the life of another less-than-perfect contemporary Chicagoan. In that novel, Hemon—who himself fled war in the former Yugoslavia for Chicago in the early ’90s—deftly handled the to-and-fro of shifts in time and register, gracefully moving between fiction and historical fact, and did it all with a daring if demure sense of humor. Much of what gave that novel and the playfully postmodernist stories that made up Hemon’s 2009 collection, Love and Obstacles, their elegant heft is present here—in particular, the way in which convenient lies are the bread and butter of both fiction writing and social life, and the way in which they can turn on a dime from benevolent to malignant. The 2003 setting of The Making of Zombie Wars enables the author to include the occasional reference to a real-world convenient fiction, the real war just getting under way in Iraq, and the televised appearance of the “beady-eyed president, ever stuck in the middle of incomprehension.” But the urgency of Hemon’s explorations has been dialed back in favor of high-energy slapstick that leaves the reader little time to linger over any detail. You can count on the most grade-D of a B-grade zombie movie to have characters you root for and others you loathe. But in The Making of Zombie Wars, even Joshua’s cancer-stricken dad, Bernie, seems more phantasmic than fleshed out, which may be desirable in a zombie but feels a tad slack for a writer who is threading a significant subplot of filial mortality through his novel.

Hemon is at least faithful to Joshua’s own limitations; he muddles through the present with no more insight into his mindless exploits than we might expect him to have. His failures as a screenwriter are a mirror to his haplessness in his predicament. “Once upon a time,” we are told, “Joshua had read Portnoy’s Complaint and figured he too could write novels—it hadn’t seemed overly taxing, all one had to do was be unsparingly honest. Then he’d read Goodbye, Columbus and thought he could write short stories instead.” As the reality principle began to assert itself, he turned away from literature and started penning scripts. “The problem, however, was that he could never figure out how to establish the necessary determinism of the plot: characters would do this or that, while neither his will nor his talent was ever strong enough to compel them to follow their goddamn trajectory. When the mind imagines its own lack of power, it is saddened by it.”

That last line hints that Joshua’s underlying problem—and what Hemon’s book is subtly suggesting about the art of fiction (and maybe the decaying of the art of lying)—might be bigger than something a pep talk from a career counselor could resolve. One of the abandoned scripts stars a DJ Spinoza, and in a beery aside Joshua pop-pontificates on the pantheist’s anticipation of the silver screen. (“My man Baruch predicted movies in the seventeenth fucking century! . . . He said: ‘The more an image is joined with other images, the more often it flourishes.’”) Underneath the free-for-all shenanigans of The Making of Zombie Wars, intimations of faith and the role of appetite and desire put in appearances. Yet they remain no more than vague signposts, markers of territory rather than guides to the road ahead. I think it’s admirable that Hemon, here and elsewhere, refrains from tying up his plots with nicely developed bows and that he is happy to leave the reader hanging, and that he is content with leading men whose too-real flaws are exposed for all to see. I just wish these undead zombies had a little more life in them.

Eric Banks, the former editor in chief of Bookforum, is the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities.