Joshua Levin is a thirty-three year-old adolescent – am unsuccessful screenwriter, a hapless teacher-of-English-as-a-second-language, a lackluster son and a useless boyfriend. He’s developing a screenplay, ‘Zombie Wars’, for his screen-writing workshop when he falls for one of his Bosnian students, Ana, a married former doctor. This isn’t convenient, as he’s already dating Kimiko, a stunning Japanese child psychologist, who’s decided that they ought to move in together. One thing leads to another with Ana, though, as you’d expect, and suddenly Joshua has a furious Bosnian husband on his tail. Cue escalating mishaps, involving, but not restricted to, a Samurai sword-wielding landlord, the maltreatment of a cat, and a very ill-assorted Seder gathering…
This is Hemon’s second novel, following The Lazarus Project, three books of short stories and a memoir, The Book of My Lives, and he’s also been the recipient of a bundle of awards and grants, including, perhaps most notably, a MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius Grant’. So he’s lauded and beloved, and having read one of his previous books – the utterly compelling and heartbreaking The Book of My Lives, which recounts his experiences as a child in Sarajevo, as a young adult in the war and as a refugee, and as the parent, later, of a critically ill daughter – I was pretty eager to see what all the fuss was about, fiction-wise. And, well. I’m still somewhat bewildered.
Zombie Wars is a comic novel: the characters are larger than life (Stagger, Joshua’s landlord, a veteran and a violently obsessive nutcase, is about par, here) and the plot itself – our hero’s romantic misadventures, his disastrous career(s), his chaotic family and demented friends – isn’t any less daft than the numerous ridiculous script ideas that Josh notes down at regular intervals throughout the text. It’s a very knowing book – Philip Roth references everywhere for a start – and there’s a nice meta-style reversal at the end that highlights the increasing lunacy of the story in relation to Josh’s dystopian undead screenplay (which is excerpted between the main chapters). So the manic escalation of place, the seediness of Josh’s lifestyle, and the sheer existence of Stagger – that’s all fine. If you can get into the frenzied swing of events, it’s definitely entertaining. And Hemon can write: in amongst Joshua’s moaning and panicking and vacillation, there are some damn fine pieces of descriptive prose, some very funny lines, and some killer dialogue.
But, but, but. As knowing as it is, The Making of Zombie Wars doesn’t ever quite rise above the generic depths that it’s satirizing through ‘Zombie Wars’ itself. Even leaving out Josh’s cartoonish family, his mishaps in pursuit of sexual satisfaction are disappointingly predictable: dorky loser man-child manages to seduce not one, but two, mature hotties? Woody Allen ought to be so lucky. Despite Joshua’s own highlighting of this very issue, it’s still there: the women in this book are all there, every single one of them, in some sexual role – they’re screwing Joshua (as if!) or they’re screwing his elderly father (and defined almost entirely by their cleavage) or they’re sad and/or bitter (Joshua’s sister and mother) because they’ve been dumped or they’re there to illustrate, as per their status as a sexual victim, the depravity of one of the male characters (Ana’s daughter). Once more: every single female character in this book – even the strong, allegedly independent ones, like Kimiko, or Ana, pre-war anyway – is there because of their sexual (or maternal/sisterly) relationship(s) with the male characters. Every. Single. One. And they all want to talk about those relationships to the exclusion of all else. Even Ana’s admittedly poignant stories about Bosnia and the war are subservient to her position as Seductress Who’s Messed Everything Up. Oh! Except Alice, a fellow screenwriter of Joshua’s, who’s a one-page side-note because, wait for it, she’s ‘pudgy’ and in her forties, and acts as a momentary maternal figure. So, however else the book punctures Joshua’s obsession with the sensationally generic, it’s still, at the end of the day, an extended male fantasy scene, and if it doesn’t actually end up very positively for poor Joshua, I found it difficult to care. Alison Bechdel would not be happy here.
Any Cop? It’s funny, sure, but it’s sexist as all hell. Because I’ve only read (and really liked) one of Hemon’s previous books, I don’t know how representative this one is – not very, I hope.