Skip to main content
book review

Aleksandar HemonVelibor Bozovic

Joshua Levin is a man who is – in his own characteristically self-pitying words – being "carpet-bombed by life." He is also a hapless ESL teacher with a laptop freighted with hundreds of screenplay ideas all in perpetual development, living a hand-to-mouth existence in Chicago during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Just as the public has been duped by Donald Rumsfeld's mythic weapons of mass destruction, Levin is regularly deceived by the value of his own cringe-worthy ideas: e.g., "Movie Idea #185: A teenager discovers that his girlfriend's beloved grandfather was a guard in a Nazi death camp. The boy's grandparents are survivors, but he's tantalizingly close to achieving deflowerment, so when a Nazi hunter arrives in town in pursuit of Grandpa, he has to distract him long enough to get laid. A riotous Holocaust comedy. Title: Righteous Lust."

A piteous casualty of the idea economy, Joshua is America's current iteration of the everyman – Apatowian, if there must be a word for it: doughy, neurotic, selfish, stilted, creatively ambitious but generally lazy, both sexually frustrated and sexually obsessed. The novel tracks Joshua as he signs off on a mounting cavalcade of terrible decisions, including cheating on his much-too-good-for-him psychologist girlfriend Kimiko with his exotic Bosnian ESL student, Ana (who is married), all while effectively ignoring his father's dire prostate-cancer diagnosis. It's kind of a literary screwball comedy of errors, with doses of high-minded theory (John Ford's beguiling The Searchers is referenced often, and Spinoza, that chimeric god of grad students everywhere, gets numerous name checks) to counterbalance all of the lowbrow body-part jokes.

And it's one of the funniest books I've read this year.

If this is a character and a plotline that you might not expect from Aleksandar Hemon, the Bosnian-American MacArthur "Genius" Grant recipient and author of one of the most emotionally wrenching collections of essays ever printed on paper (The Book of My Lives, which includes the crushing story of the death of his young daughter) – you aren't alone. In his acknowledgments, Hemon thanks his agent, "for not moving a muscle on her face when I told her I'd written a book she'd known nothing about." But it's exactly this unexpectedness that arms this novel with such power.

Joshua lives alone in a crummy apartment above his landlord, a PTSD-scarred veteran of the first Gulf War who spends his time drunkenly practising samurai sword techniques while blaring Guns N' Roses incessantly below in his basement suite. He attends a weekly screenwriting workshop with a motley bunch of similarly terrible writers, lorded over by Graham, whose fascist tendencies and vaguely anti-Semitic comments Joshua fights to ignore in the name of his craft (Levin is Jewish). These screenwriting scenes are rendered perfectly, and Hemon locates poetry in all the terrible ideas, describing so well that commingling of hubris, self-loathing, snark and delusion, present in aspiring artists everywhere.

There ought to be a word for this kind of simultaneously high and low comedy. Walter Sobchak screaming curses at Donny and the Dude in a bowling alley about Vladimir Lenin and John Lennon in The Big Lebowski seems a comparable moment. And like the Coen brothers, Hemon skillfully intersperses the yuks with some genuinely moving philosophical insights: "Man reaches a point in his life when unchanging becomes a matter of pride; the habits and remnants of youth are thereafter kept in the museum of the self." Did I mention that this comes shortly after somebody copiously wets themselves?

The narrative takes shape when Joshua arrives upon an idea that impresses even his teacher, something called Zombie Wars. "The American government has a secret program to turn immigrants into slaves. The government creates a virus to turn them into zombies who work in factories, chained to the production line." And Joshua often imagines himself pitching his half-baked script idea to an imagined Weinstein, sitting behind a big desk, grumpy as a toad. Excerpts of the screenplay are included in the text as Joshua pens them, and one of the joys of this novel is to note the life/art connections as the story crashes deeper and deeper into the forests of ruin.

This kind of narrative framing is nothing new to Hemon. He employed similar devices in his novels Nowhere Man and The Lazarus Project, for which the critic James Wood declared him a "postmodernist who has been mugged by history." A Bosnian exiled by the Yugoslavian war of 1992 while on vacation in America, Hemon knows much about displacement and emigration. And setting this novel during the lead-up to the Iraq invasion is not coincidental. He paints a fractured, confused world, where everyone is steeping in both great profundities and great banalities all at once, and are all too obsessed with their own personal miseries and bad ideas to register any of it. As Joshua watches a statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled in Baghdad, he thinks, more poignantly than he realizes: "This year we are slaves. Next year, may we all be free. And the year after that we'll probably be slaves again."

But it's Joshua first reference to George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, "in which zombies tottered in circles around a depopulated shopping mall, unable to forget their life before their undeath," that really pops this book's thematic engine into gear. And soon the duelling metaphors of zombies and war attain a giddy resonance, and the narrative itself becomes a kind of bouncy castle overflowing with ideas: the zombie as enemy within, as consumerist automaton; the immigrant as zombie, as unclean, viral invader; war as a truly American commodity, as the only way to see ourselves as whole. It's a work of beautiful conflation that doesn't so much provide answers as map out a new highway system of questions.

The Making of Zombie Wars isn't entirely a battle well fought. Whenever you're toying with cliché, you risk sullying yourself with its sugary filth, and Hemon fails to escape untouched. At times the slapstick quality of the narrative feels dangerously akin to the movie you'd watch only to deactivate your brain stem during a transatlantic flight. And the characterizations, especially of people like Bernie, Joshua's Cadillac-driving, secular Jewish dad, feel more like exercises in stereotype than Simpsons-style send-ups of them.

But if we readers accept that great U.S. military edict that mistakes were (and must be!) made, and simply submit to a plot that is really only a kind of narrative tour bus anyway, hired to escort us between the various landmarks of Hemon's gorgeous prose and riotous set pieces, there is much to enjoy: "Afternoon at the Coffee Shoppe slipped into evening just as Joshua's caffeination reached the heights of the Rwandan plantations where his beverage originated." Or how, when Kimiko discovers our hero's bumbling infidelity, he is left to "writhe like a fetus in a frying pan."

"It's about zombies. And wars," Joshua quite underwhelmingly describes his corny, derivative, screenplay to the various humans who shamble through his life. And of course this serves as a spot-on description of the novel itself. As long as you note that the zombies and wars are everywhere. Even inside us. Especially inside us.

The Making of Zombie Wars is a violent, sexually astute, culturally exacting, zany and weirdly observant feat of writing. One of huge ideas and microscopic morality, where soaring, noble ideals crash-land into depressing, filthy reality. A fictional riff on consumerism, death, sex, violence and American culture. From its very first page, this darkly hilarious, polyphonic novel will burst through your door with its face decomposing and its eyes hanging out of its sockets like two gory yo-yos, moaning "BRAAAAAAINS!"

Whether it aims to ingest them, rot them or enrich them – therein lies the fun.

Michael Christie is the author of the novel If I Fall, If I Die.