Book review: The Making of Zombie Wars tries to carry too much freight
Aleksandar Hemon’s farcical new novel is a bit of a disappointment after his thoughtful, unbearably sad memoir
The Making of Zombie Wars
by Aleksandar Hemon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Bosnian-born writer Aleksandar Hemon’s new novel is a rambunctious farce that includes zombies, a lot of slapstick, comedic violence, allusions to the Bible and Spinoza, and a climactic showdown involving a stoned Desert Storm veteran and a samurai sword.
Coming to The Making of Zombie Wars from Hemon’s most recent book, the thoughtful and at times unbearably sad memoir The Book of My Lives, the reader is taken aback. It’s like finding an obsessive cinematic auteur directing a gross-out movie: Andrei Tarkovsky’s lost prequel to The Hangover.
Hemon’s protagonist is a 33-year-old aspiring screenwriter named Joshua Levin. The opening chapter finds him drinking too much coffee and embarking on yet another spec script that he intends to workshop in his vipers’ nest of a writing group – an acidly drawn sketch of creative rivalry.
For money, Josh teaches English as a second language. His class is a funny bestiary of displaced Eastern Europeans that includes gorgeous femme fatale Ana. Somehow, in spite of a face with “eyes too big and sunken; an archipelago of zits stretching below a dandruff-peppered peninsula of hair; the overbite reliably overbiting”, Josh inspires passion in his pupil.
His conflicting entanglements with Ana and his equally gorgeous girlfriend Kimiko drive the novel. Interspersed with his real-life calamities are scenes from Josh’s script-in-progress, a clunky B-movie called Zombie Wars that features a beefy wish-fulfilment version of Josh called Major Klopstock, who is battling to rid the world of a zombie scourge.
The book encourages the reader to compare the pointlessness of Josh’s comfortable life with the high stakes of Klopstock’s absurd battle. But in truth Josh’s real life and the world of his screenplay are rather similar. Both are populated by stock characters and both climax in cartoonish violence.
The Making of Zombie Wars quotes George W. Bush in one of its epigraphs. Its 2003 setting and highly critical references to the war in Iraq seem to be staking the novel’s claim to a grand theme: that simplistic world views and impoverished imaginations lead to misguided interventions. This is heavy freight for a farce with zombies.