A literary truism: good comic writing, any comic writing that professes to call itself literary fiction, must be undergirded with a firm foundation in seriousness. Nikolai Gogol was/is the greatest comic writer in Russian literature; his works are profound. Vladimir Nabokov wrote the following about Gogol’s long story, “The Overcoat,” widely considered the best story ever written in Russia: “The diver, the seeker for pearls, the man who prefers the monsters of the deep to the sunshades on the beach, will find in ‘The Overcoat’ shadows linking our state of existence to those other states and modes which we dimly apprehend in our rare moments of irrational perception.”
Too many contemporary American writers of literary fiction are under those umbrellas on the beach. If they are swimming at all they are swimming in the shallows. There are depths to be plumbed through the art of writing creative fiction. Why not plumb them? Is it too risky? Is it easier to wade into tepid waters and potter around there? Time to take a deep breath and dive down deep now, modern American author. Time to stop your “shit-swimming” (Hemon’s term, taken out of context) in the literary shallows.
The Making of Zombie Wars (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 307 pages) begins with Hollywood silliness—amateur screenwriters pitching ideas to one another in a Chicago workshop—the idiocy and mindlessness of Hollywood (and of the whole U.S. A.), lurks in the background all the way through to the end. Practically all of Hemon’s books with American characters in a U.S. setting present a picture of our country teeming with idiots. This novel is set in 2003, just as we were embarking on what will surely go down as one of the most idiotic foreign-policy decisions of the twenty-first century: the invasion of Iraq.
Note the title: not Zombie Wars, but The Making of Zombie Wars. The book is about writing the screenplay for a movie, so it fits in the proud tradition of metafiction: a book about writing a book. In this case a screenplay. But this book features probably the worst writer who has ever appeared in a novel, and the worst screenplay.
To paraphrase Spinoza, who makes desultory appearances throughout the text, the mind can neither imagine nor recollect a more hapless and woebegone main character in a novel than Joshua Levin, the “hero” of this book. In his early thirties, Joshua lives in Chicago, works as a teacher of ESL, tries to write Zombie Wars, struggles with his love life, thrashes about amidst his equally hapless relatives. He is a young man who “can’t even remember what okay looks like.” What are Joshua Levin’s redeeming virtues: (1) he appreciates good wine (2) well, yeah, he likes good wine, and he, uh, like, I mean…
That’s it. No more virtues, and the novel makes for itself an insurmountable problem from the start: the book is about a nonentity of a character and about “the continuous fiasco of his [Joshua’s] writing,” which is not interesting. Which is, in fact, colossally boring. “There was a time when he could conceive of a life that would permit him to wake up happy in the mornings. Such a life was now beyond the reach of his imagination.” Perhaps all of us come to this point in our lives, regrettably, but someone as young as Joshua should be far from having reached that point.
In a supreme irony, Joshua Levin has the same surname as the main male protagonist in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Konstantin Levin. Of course Joshua is a Jewish Levin, while Konstantin is of the Russian landed nobility. Some admirers of Tolstoy, such as Nabokov, have insisted that the name should be pronounced Lyovin, rather than Levin. Tolstoy himself is said to have said (and I suspect that this is apocryphal), “It’s not Levin, but Lyovin. Levin is a dentist in Berdichev.” The veiled anti-Semitism is apparent here to any Russian reader. You have your Levins and Levines, and they are, largely, Jewish.
Does writer Josh appreciate Tolstoy? Of course not. In a conversation with the Bosnian woman Ana—-who is practically the only sympathetic character in the whole novel—-Josh declares Tolstoy’s work (the greatest novel in the history of world literature) “too drawn out for me. I could never remember all those names.” Ana replies, “It is beautiful. It is about real life.”
You could concoct an imaginary dialogue between the two characters named Levin, when they meet some day in the Heaven for literary personages.
Konstantin: I was the main guy in Anna Karenina.
Joshua: Oh, yeah, I hear that was a good book; I never could get into it though. Too complicated for my pin brain.
K: It was a book about real life. I had a lot of trouble with that all my life: real life, I mean.
J: Me too. Looks like you and I have much in common.
K: Tell me. What was the name of the book you were in?
J: The Making of Zombie Wars.
K: I see. What was it about?
J: Zombies and wars.
K: (eyes glaze over; he looks around for a cloud to hide behind): I see.
Hemon’s novel is, indeed, about zombies and wars. The main wars under discussion are the 2003 American war against Iraq, the previous “Desert Storm” police action, and the wars in the Balkans of the nineties. As for zombies, they wander about attacking people throughout the book (in the scenes from Joshua’s screenplay and elsewhere in his imagination). There is endless discussion of what it means to be undead, whether zombies can have sex, and so on. Facts are checked in The Zombie Encyclopedia. At one point I thought my problem with this book is that I care not one iota about a single zombie who ever un-lived. I wonder what zombie-lovers think about this book.
Then again, the main theme of the book seems to be, once again, American idiocy. Typical of the American characters (a crass materialist) is Joshua’s brother-in-law Doug, “the manager of some shady money-laundering fund that made him spend a lot of time in Dubai.” After puzzling over the zombie theme, I finally came to this conclusion: the characters populating this novel, Americans, Bosnians, Russians, Hispanics, Japanese are really all zombies themselves. Is that the point? Are we all undead?
An odd irony (the book is full of ironies): President Bush senior makes one appearance, addressing the nation on TV at the time of “Desert Storm.” While he is speaking a leaf falls in the background behind him, and “the deciduous leaf suddenly made Bush look terribly old [why? I don’t get it] and getting older [how can a leaf do that?]. Mr. President was going to die and no troop deployment could ever stop that.” The irony is that as I read this passage in the novel Bush One is still very much alive, while this book about zombies and nonentities, while only recently published, is already on life support. Gasp.
I suppose the reader has gathered by now that I don’t like this novel, that this is Hemon’s worst book yet. You read along and you keep wishing that the author were writing a different book, not this one. Anything other than the story of idiot zombie Joshua and his idiotic zombie friends amidst zombies. The meretricious and cretinous leader of the writers’ group, Graham, inadvertently provides a description of Hemon’s favorite characters: “The triers, the failures, the shit-swimmers. . . . the dung beetles of the American Dream.”
We are told that Joshua has an intelligent Japanese girlfriend, Kimmy. We never believe that such a woman would have the time of day for him, at least not until she mentions “a chance for us to take our [hers and Josh’s] relationship to a new level.” That’s when we say, aha, she’s as dumb as all the rest of them.
What about the Bosnian characters? Of them, only Ana Osim is sympathetic and redeemable (her daughter Alma somewhat less so). By now Hemon has begun recycling his lowlife Bosnian male characters. They have new names in this latest book (Bega, Esko), but we’ve already met them in previous works: losers all, shell-shocked by war and PTSD-ed into monsters. When we encounter the Begas and Eskos, along with the ex-KGB despicable Ponomarenko and many other immigrants (not only in this book, but in many other of Hemon’s works), the main questions we Americans find ourselves asking is this: Why did we ever let these jerks into our country? What purpose do they serve here? What can we do to make our immigration laws much stricter? Do we need Donald Trump after all?
Of course, according to the viewpoint of these more-than-flawed new residents of America the Beautiful-—who, by the way, spend most of their time complaining about their new country, or trying to run some swindle rather than work-—we naïve Americans are the flawed human beings, somehow automatically inferior because we lack the Russian, or the Ukrainian, or the Balkan experience of a thousand years of bloody history (some of it quite recent). You see, we dolts can never properly understand life, because we have not sufficiently suffered.
Is there any chance that one day the people of the Balkans will stop suffering? Decide to be flawed human beings, like us ingenuous Americans? Not likely. In her monumental Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West wrote the account of Balkan history: the perennial bloodshed, the atrocities, the rapes, genocides, etc. You read her book now, thinking, ah, yes, this was written between the two world wars, but, were she alive, Rebecca could add another chapter, describing how the denizens of the Balkans carry on in the nineties of the twentieth century with their same old same old. “History [read the history of Yugoslavia]: the first time a joke, the second time a badly translated joke.” Add: the third time and countless more times, a badly translated piece of bloody gibberish.
What about the plot of Hemon’s novel? It teems with improbabilities. What would a vibrant fifteen-year-old girl like Alma, already hopelessly Americanized, see in the vulgarian lowlife Bega? Not believable. Would the madcap Stagger, Joshua’s buddy—and one of the most screwed-up characters in a novel in which nearly everyone is screwed up—get his nose broken twice by the same antagonist (the redoubtable Esko) in a novel of only three hundred pages?
What about the interpolations? Take the scenes featuring Major Klopstock, Joshua’s hero of the screenplay. What purpose do they serve in the book as a whole, other than to reinforce what we already know: that Joshua is a cretin and his screenplay is B-film Hollywood at its worst? Other interpolations, some from Spinoza, some sounding like prayers out of the bible, are equally useless. We’re supposed to believe that Joshua has the smarts to appreciate Spinoza. We don’t.
Then again, read out of context even Spinoza sounds like a blockhead. Is this done deliberately? Take the epigraph: “The mind can neither imagine anything, nor recollect past things, except while the body endures.” Well, yeah, Baruch. Duh. By the time you are fifty pages into the book you are fed up with the little tag-on sentences at the end of the paragraphs. They recall Vonnegut’s cutesy tag-on, used to the point of utter repletion in Slaughterhouse Five: “And so it goes.”
Hold it, now, hold it (says the defender of Hemon); can’t you find anything good to say about this book? Actually I can, but it has nothing to do with the main characters or the plot. Hemon has a gift for verbal imagery, for incisive turns of phrase and metaphor. This has been his strongest attribute since the beginning of his writing career. “Stagger had offered to show him his samurai sword, so sharp, he’d said, it could slice a running dog in half and both halves would still jump at the same time to catch the Frisbee.” Later on, this sword is described as “my weapon of ass destruction.” Nice pun. “The before was no longer available, nor would it ever be, while the after was mercilessly launched between the glad ding of Kimiko’s bell and its despondent dong.” Very nice. Spring had arrived, and “the trees were taking their leaves seriously.” Nice.
Hemon has a certain quirkiness of imagination that I appreciate. “She sneezed as she was coming and he actually said, ‘Bless you’.” Has this ever happened before, in the history of world literature or in reality? Is it even possible to sneeze and come at the same time? Then again, can you be choking to death and coming at the same time? (See p. 151.) Hemon has a feel for the quotidian quandaries of humanity, like getting your testicles in a bind while sitting, thereby giving yourself “an inadvertent self-wedgie.” He does have a good sense of humor, so why does the aggregate of this comic novel end up being more aggravating than amusing?
Furthermore, Hemon has a good eye for detail, and amidst the mess that is the plot of this book, fine little scenes poke their noses in: (1) At the hospital. “An old man, thin as a stick, regressed down the hallway, pushing very slowly the walker on which his half-full colostomy bag hung. His hospital gown was not closed in the back, so his withered doughy ass was there for all to behold.” (2) In the ER room. “A rail-thin guy in full Bulls regalia was interrogating the water cooler (‘Whaddya want? What da fuck ya want? Whaddya want?’), which refused to cooperate. . . . [he] was focused on the cooler releasing defiantly an occasional bubble. He tried to kick the blue water bottle as if it were a head, but the Bulls sweatpants fallen halfway down his ass prevented him from connecting with it.” (3) In a restaurant. “The waiter, too large and slow to be a professional—easily cast as the laziest sibling in the family, the prodigal son who came back from college as a stoned failure—approached them gingerly, his pen at attention.” (4) In a bar. “The frat boys emptied the shots into their gullets then slammed the glasses down on the bar dramatically, as if they’d just accomplished a brave and rare feat. Paco poured them another round. One day these wide-shouldered boys will be running mutual funds into the ground, loyally voting Republican, and supporting foreign wars while watching the Wildcats football games, their hands stuck into their sweatshorts.”
Maybe it would have been better, had Hemon written a comic novel about zombies—rather than about zombified human beings. If we can read between the lines there are glimmers of such a book. Mention is made of monkey zombies and bird zombies, about zombies dancing in a disco club. One undeveloped scene has a zombie pitching in a Cubs game. Just imagine what comedy you could make of that.
Full count. We’re tied in the ninth, folks, two out. Zombrel’s on the mound, leans in for his sign. Nods his zombie noggin. Grabs at his crotch to adjust his crotch-cup. He’s into his stretch. Checks the runners on first and third. Wipes blood off his brow, under the peak of his cap. And then, huh, what’s he doing, folks? He’s lumbered down off the mound, it’s a balk! He’s staggering toward the plate, he’s, he’s…he’s eating the face of the batter!
Here’s the supreme irony of all the ironies in this book. The novel treats an amateur writer who is trying (and failing) to write something significant, while, simultaneously, at a deeper level, the subject is a professional writer who is trying (and failing) to write something significant.
What is the Hemon Phenomenon? It is this. Here is an acclaimed writer, much acclaimed almost from the first English words he put down on a page. Welcomed with open arms into the top levels of the Eastern literary establishment, published in The New Yorker and practically anywhere else he wishes to submit his works. Every time he writes a book the Eastern establishment, or whoever is in charge of editorial reviews in the big-name places—The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, etc.—drags out the blurbery and encomium machines. It’s as if the blurbers and the encomium-spewers don’t even have to read the new book. All they have to do is dredge up the same compliments as before and wax enthusiastic. So every book that comes out is favorably reviewed where it counts, and so it goes, on and on, and the non-perspicacious reader is led to believe that the career of the writer Hemon is progressing well.
The end result is that lots and lots of people are deliberately deceiving themselves—or are led astray by the favorable reviews, which neglect to mention the lugubrious facts: that Hemon’s books do not appear to be getting better as his career progresses. That the zombie book is the worst one yet. That his best stuff was fiction he wrote right at the beginning of his career. As one recent reviewer on Amazon puts it: “He’s had nothing to write about for some time. . . . Being overpraised probably hasn’t helped him reload.”
What next for the writer Aleksandar Hemon? We have grounds for hoping for better things in the future, maybe even great things. People have come out of slumps before. He does have talent. He can write. Let’s hope he finds a way to do things differently. Maybe some day soon he’ll develop a preference for “the monsters of the deep to the sunshades on the beach.” Could be he’ll put on his diving gear and descend into the depths of profundity—and write a profound new novel or short story collection. Let’s hope so.
– U.R. Bowie, author of Googlegogol: Stories from the Data Base of Russian Literature, Inc., 2016
Now what could I do with the boy? Joshua asked himself. All human feelings are derived from pleasure, pain, and desire–but most important, Spin could say to Rise, from the beat. And 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.
Afternoon at the Coffee Shoppe slipped into evening just as Joshua’s caffeination reached the heights of the Rwandan plantations where his beverage originated. Hence he was burning to surf the web for Rwanda, learn some interesting facts about other cultures and allow his current creative dilemmas to resolve themselves. Back in the day, before the worldwide web of temptation, there used to be that thing called inspiration. Then the spirit was perpetually displaced by trivia and vanity search. Mercifully, there was no Internet access at the Coffee Shoppe.