Thursday, 28 May 2015

"The ping and the pong of America"

Full title: The Making of Zombie Wars. A Novel
Author: Aleksandar Hemon
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 320 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2015)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

When you see the title you know straight away that there’s fun to be had from reading this novel. And the fun begins alright, yet slowly, gradually – because nothing can proceed unless we have some good introductory chapters first. So here it goes: Joshua Levin, a young would-be writer based in Chicago, is facing the mother of all creative impasses. He’s tried his hand at various genres, but after a while decided that film scripts are the go-to enterprise. So he proceeds to writing them. No success. Projects die one after another. He’s joined a group of other would-be’s, with whom he shares this destiny of being in an eternal bottleneck. They get together to discuss writing that never takes place and end up, almost invariably, with their minds assaulted by sexual ideation or drowned in cheap oxidized wine.
Case in point, the following dialogue:
“’American movies always have happy ending,’ Bega said. ‘Life is tragedy: you’re born, you live, you die.’
‘This could be like a European art-house movie. Which would be good because you could show tits,’ Graham said, pausing to picture the tits.”
Of course, what Hemon wants to point out here is the cultural break that divides these two cultures he’s concerned with: the Easter-European one (a culture of immigrants who have too many stories to tell and no chance to do it properly) and the American one (where things make sense only if they’re showy, over-the-top, kitsch). In fact, Bega, the Bosnian, doesn’t lose a single opportunity to highlight, in his accent-ridden voice, this division. He does so with the typical air of contempt that behooves respectable immigrants:
“’I was thinking, Josh,’ Bega said. ‘Why America now must have superheroes? Why can’t you just have normal heroes? John Wayne was not good enough, now you must have Batman?’”
And a couple of pages further down, again, because nothing is sweeter than the taste of cultural revenge:
“’Tell me why is that,’ Bega said, ‘last eight presidents have simple names: Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, two with Bush. You used to have Washington, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower, and then something happened. You can’t elect your president with complicated name anymore. Idiot voters have to be able to spell fucking name.’”
Mocked, Joshua flexes his artistic muscle even harder, trying to achieve the impossible. He keeps a record of all the ideas that cross his mind at various points in time. There are many of them. He has them numbered, neatly catalogued in the memory of his personal computer. He brings them out every now and then as personal reminders that work needs to be done if artistic immortality is desired. But there’s no joy in the exercise, because he never gets to the point of materialization. His writing sucks, to put it bluntly; and he knows it. Nothing has come out yet from under his unconvincing finger tips. Nothing, that is, except this script idea for a film called Zombie Wars.

Aleksandar Hemon. Source: KCET
Steeped in American dullness, Joshua has a life best described as minor. His food is bland, his family is concerned with inconsequential Jewish problems, his whole life’s a sub-product better imagined as part of a low-budget B-series movie. He can’t even enjoy the prospect of dreams.
“Joshua hated sleeping, but waking up was worse. Nightmares were not the problem: he never really had any. Nobody ever bothered to chase him in his dreams; he never plunged from a tall building to wake up just before exploding like a pomegranate, nor did he ever experience even the vaguest presence of death. There was little violence, only occasional vanilla sex, his dreams damp rather than wet, his subconscious a Wilmette where he was forever sleepily immortal.”
Trapped in this dreamless Americanness, it’s a miracle Joshua doesn’t turn into a Norman Bates or some solo-act of Bonnie and Clyde.
Truth is he doesn’t have a chance to become wild, simply because he doesn’t have the guts. He flees conflict, avoids his mad landlord, avoids his family, avoids the happiness that seems likely to catch roots in the company of his near-perfect Japanese girlfriend, avoids – ultimately – writing the script of his own life. Hence the general feeling of his being completely and utterly (excuse the word) fucked: a looser in the most specific sense of the word, eligible to feature in the world’s best galleries of all-time losers.
After a while, though, things get moving and everything that was dull in the beginning turns into a fast-paced Hollywood-like production. There’s drama (Joshua’s father discovering that he has prostate cancer), romance (a lot of it, but of the problematic kind, with the Japanese girlfriend gone from perfect match to utter hater, aided by a Bosnian contender impossible to resist), adventure (featuring the colourful landlord by the name of Stagger, who brandishes a samurai sword and gets his butt kicked big time, and not just once), and even bits of thriller (with a bunch of other Bosnians in close-up, just to make sure we don’t forget who Aleksandar Hemon is).
With action cropping up at superhighway speeds, The Making of Zombie Wars turns hilarious and sad at the same time. A sympathetic reader will surely feel for the protagonist’s sorry ass, but will LOL at the encounter with Stagger, the novel’s best, if not only, truly comic character (“If ever a man was entitled to a cape and light saber, it was Stagger.”)
Then one must admire Hemon’s talent for destroying every cliché that ever comes his way. There are moments when one is reminded of those comedies in which a seemingly melodramatic plot ends with a turntable scratch that makes the audience aware that this ain’t nothing but a joke. Take this, for instance, for a ruined bucolic:
“All across the wide world, spring was landing on its fairy feet. Everywhere, trees were budding and coming into leaves, ground thawing and earthworms stirring, dog shit defrosting and releasing the pungent stink that brought back memories of springs past.”
As per example, Hemon knows irony well, and proves to be a good adept of the new American wave of novelists, who take the Mickey out of everything but do so with intelligence, elegance, and sophistication. (See Chuck Palahniuk, George Saunders, Gary Shteyngart, Junot Diaz etc. etc.) Some of Hemon’s metaphors, let’s admit it, rock. Take “clouds floated like meringue zeppelins” for an example. But metaphors aren’t everything that stands out. Hemon also engages perfectly with the critical vein of the American club, seeing where America is weak and hitting precisely there, for maximum effect:
“Hope sold, of course, and well; it was the corn syrup of existence, fast burning and addictive. On the other hand, it was cheap and everywhere. Hope and war: the ping and the pong of America.”
There would be numberless other occasions to quote Aleksadar Hemon, now at his sixth book, already a victor of American letters. Part of his talent is that he knows how to scatter quotable bits throughout the text. The novel expertly apes the prose of religious sermons, it mimics Spinoza, it offers brilliant philosophical gems, it mixes script excerpts into the novelistic fabric. It does all sorts of novel-writing prestidigitation, and a lot of it comes out well. A multi-voice enterprise, The Making of Zombie Wars is a novel worth keeping in one’s personal library for some time.