The Making of Zombie Wars
By Aleksandar Hemon. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pp, hardcover
The Making of Zombie Wars, MacArthur “Genius Grant”–winning author Aleksandar Hemon’s third novel, opens on an ominous note: with quotations from rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza (on the nature of being) and George W. Bush (on us versus them).
From there, it leaps right into the mind and dubious creative process of one Joshua Levin, the dissipated antihero who blazes a haphazard trail through the novel. Juxtaposing seriousness with levity and pitting rational against irrational, Hemon creates a hilarious caper that also happens to be a dark reflection on violence.
Joshua (or, as he hates being called, Jonjo) is a failed 33-year-old Dubya-era scriptwriter who just cannot get his life together. None of his (horribly clichéd) scripts have ever been read or optioned in the 10 years he’s been writing them, including his current effort, which is about both “war” and “zombies” and not much else. His girlfriend, Kimiko, is an intensely perfect therapist whose interest in Josh (a self-proclaimed “dandruff survivor”) is unexplainable.
Josh has clearly led a pretty good, albeit extremely lazy, life, but a lot of the people around him have not. His family (father, grandparents) are all Holocaust survivors; his wildly deranged landlord, Stagger, is a Desert Storm vet. And at his bread-and-butter job as an ESL teacher, he’s surrounded by refugees from the war in Bosnia. Among those is Ana, a tragic (but sexy!) middle-aged, henna-haired woman whose damaged charm he cannot resist.
Josh’s inevitable seduction by Ana sets off a chain of events that’s borderline apocalyptic but also hilarious, in a Beckett-flavoured, gallows-humour sort of way. A Bosnian heavy with PTSD ruins his home life with Kimmy, Stagger threatens someone with a sword, and a panoply of drugs are consumed, giving the whole heinous affair a cockeyed Hunter S. Thompson vibe.
Josh’s helplessness just adds to the essential meaninglessness of all the violence—it just happens, whether he wants it to or not. Looking past the high jinks, the book’s tone is deeply existential. In the end, Jonjo ends up living out his own little war; the zombies are merely a distraction.