The Making of the Zombie Wars: A Novel by Aleksandar Hemon (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015. 320 pp)

Aleksandar Hemon is the author of The Lazarus Project, which was a finalist for the National Book Award; The Book of My Lives, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and three other works of fiction, including Nowhere Man, which was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a “Genius Grant” from the MacArthur Foundation. He lives in Chicago.

Enough Already

The world has no need for more zombie stories. Luckily, Aleksandar Hemon’s latest novel, despite its title, is not about zombies.

The Making of the Zombie Wars depicts the struggles of a young, Chicago-residing, single man named Joshua Levin. Going nowhere fast, Joshua teaches English to ESL students in a continuing education course.

Writing for the Silver Screen

His passion, however, focuses on the screenplay. Nothing sold, nothing optioned, Joshua operates a half-life with incomplete scripts sitting in the recesses of his mind. He workshops the best of his ideas with a group of fellow screenwriters, but nothing transcends the mundane so far.

Day by day, the circumstances of Joshua’s life percolate into script ideas.

“The Cubs had finally lost their game by twelve runs. All the players looked absurdly inept, as though they were expressly drafted to be humiliated, entrepreneurs in the industry of losing. Paco scratched his goiter and it wiggled a bit under the skin, like a mature fetus. Script Idea #11: A gay pitcher sells his soul to the devil to play in the World Series. The price: he has to turn straight. Title: At the Bat” (22).

A Family Divided

Joshua’s family schisms in different directions. A sister works through a divorce, maintaining a holier-than-thou attitude; a divorced father keeps finding new girlfriends, although his health begins to wane.

However, Joshua’s girlfriend, Kimmy, keeps him grounded. But like an insatiable menace, Joshua needs something more.

“Therein was a trace of the woman he was supposed to love; he had all the reasons to lover her; he’d bragged about her to others: his Zen mistress, brash, self-sufficient, and prone to kinkiness (yet to be fully exploited). But he now found comfort in her absence; he liked the idea of her, but her presence—sometimes, presently—made him want to be alone. A desire that arises from joy is stronger, other things being equal, than one that arises from sadness” (58).

Those desires for something more attach to a Bosnian immigrant in his ESL course. When his desires for his student, Ana, receive response, the choice to blow up his life becomes a tantalizing option.

“May the conqueror conquer if capable of conquest. This was, he understood, why men cheat, why all mankind are liars—the power of acting without regret, the destruction of remorse. It wasn’t the sex: it was the freedom to take or do what you want. The presence of death, the gaping void, afforded entitlement. This was what wars were for” (146).

Given these challenges, the metaphor of war and Joshua’s current script project around a zombie war gains focus. The war metaphor makes sense of the conflict we all entertain between every relationship we have.

The Walking Dead as a Metaphor for Life and Political Process

For this reason, Hemon attaches much of the narrative to the foreign policies of post-911.

“A TV set in the upper corner showed Saddam’s statue coming down like a lost erection. This year we are slaves. Next year, may we all be free. And the year after that we’ll probably be slaves again” (231).

And in contrast, Hemon begins each chapter with sections from Joshua’s script on the zombie wars:

“A group of men under the leadership of Major Klopstock moves through darkness, carving it with their flashlights. CADET (20) and GOITER (59) with a shotgun follow in Major K’s wake” (95).

Given this early 2000s milieu and Joshua’s self-destructive tendencies, the inevitable overwhelming push of the dead on the living gains new meaning. We all are zombies at some point.

“The mind goes out, but the body always hums along, proceeding until it stops. The beauty of life is that eventually everybody turns into a zombie, whereupon they die” (273).

The Making of the Zombie Wars blends humor, current issues, and the wandering eye of one man into an engaging character study.  Our culture is over-zombified. I still recommend this book.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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