|Now everything mattered less, |
but also more.
I'm an advocate, a fan, of Aleksandar Hemon. His Chicago-based Liverpool Football Club affinity aside, his writing, even short stories (or perhaps especially short stories) has always filled me with wonder and excitement and pathos and joy. There is a hard-earned, droll, dry stoicism even as he delivers tales of the horror of the Balkans war. But in trying to cultivate that drollness into a full-blown comic novel I wonder if he's not overreached.
Joshua 'Jacky' Levin (wait, I'm having Jacky flashbacks) is a struggling screenwriter and uncommitted teacher of English-As-A-Foreign-Language in Chicago. His ideas fill digital note books as evidenced by their liberal seasoning of the novel in attempts to shoe-horn in more absurd levity, but the only one that his peers in the screenwriting group consider to have merit is the titular Zombie Wars, a highly derivative post-apocalyptic zombie screenplay, a scene from which prefaces each chapter (or perhaps serves as an epigraph to the previous chapter–I couldn't decide, or didn't care to try, in most instances). His network consists of the aforementioned and particularly unsupportive screenwriters, his collapsing familia diaspora, his landlord who appears to suffer from PTSD of a peculiar sort, his cold and mysterious (and irritatingly Japanese) girlfriend, and the rogues gallery that is his mostly Eastern Bloc teaching cohort. Throughout, Joshua appears to court divine intervention with random exhortations, makes odd remarks about his grand parents who survived internment in the camps, and seems, generally, only Jewish as an afterthought. Heavy (and heavy-going) use is made of not very entertaining repeating tropes and the oft-repeated ideas seem laboured.
To balance this unfavourable-sounding experience, there are some excellent moments, echoing the Pulitzer-Prize winning character Dick Macalister from Love and Other Obstacles, usually centred on the charismatic yet brutally practical Bega, a fellow writer (although we never hear or see any evidence of this other than his presence at the writing group) and Bosnian immigrant who serves as a catalyst for some of the more brutal action, particularly when involved in the desperately self-destructive rage of the cuckolded Bosnian husband of Joshua's antagonistic love interest, sultry student Ana. Crazy landlord Stagger does add some genuine comic relief with his repressed homoerotic behaviour, almost permanent state of undress and willingness to wield a samurai sword over which he has only the very basic control, and there is pathos to spare in the implied lives of Ana and her daughter, the casual indifference to animal cruelty when offset against the atrocity of wartime experience, and in the willingness of any given human animal to mortgage his or her future against what appears in retrospect to be temporary gains in general happiness. In that respect it is intensely thought-provoking. However, it fails somewhere along the line, and the humour, which could have been underplayed and understated, interrupts such thoughts, rudely in places. Maybe I mean to say it is gratuitous, somehow. And the ending, wherein the screenplay becomes prose and the family meal at Passover becomes the screenplay, well, I could draw inferences but at that point I was kind-of glad it was over.
"It was a beautiful, big dream. Big enough for all of us," Jack went on. Before he could say anything else, somewhere below, somewhere in the silent human crowd below, a cell phone rang. First once, and then it rang again. The silence between the rings was crushing.
"Pick it up!" someone cried, but nothing happened. The sea of zombies slowly funnelled towards the entrance to the prison. The first wave to reach the closed gate simply stopped. They didn't really know what to do, so they just stood there, uneasy, rumbling with hunger.