A Review of A Questionable Shape, by Bennett Sims (Two Dollar Radio, 2013)
The first zombie in Bennett Sims’s A Questionable Shape doesn’t appear until page 161, and then only as a silhouette seen from across a lake. Most of the zombies have been detained, quarantined, or “put down” by a government that seems relatively more functional in its performance of disaster relief, especially in Louisiana, than in its earlier iteration, not so long ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The undead that remain roaming the bayou possess “roughly the same citizen status and legal rights, as, say, coma patients or the mentally ill.” FEMA funds refugee shelters and welfare checks and undead search operations, although, by now, the term “undead” is increasingly frowned upon for being “dysphemistic and dehumanizing.”
The search for the undead yet at-large in Louisiana has grown quite urgent by the novel’s beginning, because in five days it will be the end of July, and the beginning of hurricane season. The story’s narrator, a young bookish man named Vermaelen, has agreed to help his friend Matt Mazoch search for his undead father.
The five days they have left in their search–Monday through Friday–serve double-duty, as scaffolding for the book’s structure (plus a Saturday denouement), and as a ticking clock of the sort often advised of thriller writers hoping to amplify tension by watching time tick away toward whatever big-time trouble the story anticipates.
News of the zombies, the government-in-crisis, the ticking clock–these are just three of the ways Sims sets up the subversion of the reader’s every expectation in the first few pages. The ticking clock will expire, but nothing will have happened by the moment of its expiration. The agents of government will be generally competent, generally decent, generally concerned for the common welfare. The zombies will appear mostly in memory, in anecdote, in conjecture, in imagination, in fear, in concern, in places other than the places where the book’s main action takes place.
And instead of big fast scary undead-on-living chase sequences, gross-out undead execution gags, the gradual killing-off of the group of friends, or the safe place that doesn’t remain safe, Vermaelen and Mazoch and Rachel (Vermaelen’s beloved) will make footnoted lists, visit places that might have been special to Mazoch’s father (the book always calls him Mr. Mazoch), consult the Louisiana Center for Disease Control “infection-awareness pamphlet” FIGHT THE BITE, play chess in a deserted picnic field, break into a shuttered antiques mall, eat lunch at Louie’s Cafe, stand on the rooftop of Citiplace Cinemas, practice defamiliaration techniques the psychologists developed with the intention of preparing people “for the shock of seeing their undead loved ones,” take a personal day, send a text message, visit quarantines, visit the levee that protects Baton Rouge from the Mississippi River, eat dinner, drink wine, and go to bed.
These actions serve the narrative purpose of scaffolding the scenes that fill out the promised five days of searching for Mr. Mazoch, but Vermaelen and Mazoch mostly spend the pages they bracket in talking about what they do and don’t know about the undead and about what Mazoch does and doesn’t know about Mr. Mazoch, and then Vermaelen privately ruminates and speculates further, sometimes in long expository passages, sometimes in the footnotes which appear on nearly every page.
The footnotes are sometimes deployed as an efficient information-management device. For example, when at the start of the first day’s search operation Mazoch and Vermaelen are carrying baseball bats, we get this news in a footnote: “Technically speaking it would be illegal to [use the bats]: it’s considered murder to murder the undead. Only in self-defense, in close-quartered combat, are you supposed to follow FIGHT THE BITE‘s concussion instructions (‘A Knock to the Head Will Stop ‘Em Dead’).”
More often, the footnotes are a vehicle of additional metaphorical riffing for a narrator who already often thinks in expansive metaphors. When, for example, Vermaelen comes across the construction “phantom-footed” in a Thomas Hardy quotation post-it noted to the dashboard of his car, he imagines the footprints of the undead “phosphorescing beneath moonlight, as if ectoplasmically,” and glowing in trails toward “whatever that undead had found in life ‘largest, best.’ It would be like reading a map of remembering to look down on all the ectoplasmic paths glimmering through the city at night . . . they materialize a thought, the path of that remembering.” This metaphor, which is truly beautiful, and which colors the way the reader experiences all of Vermaelen’s and Mazoch’s visits to Mr. Mazoch’s favorite places, and which also, in a way, stands in for one of the book’s major thematic preoccupations, is also, tidily, the setup for the payoff in the footnote in which Vermaelen explains the function of the footnote in the novel. “Since the outbreak,” Vermaelen annotates, “I have often reflected that the footnote is the typographic mark most emblematic of undeath. By opening up a subjacent space on the page, the footnote digs a grave in the text, an underworld in the text.” Then, extending the earlier metaphor: “Footnotes are a text’s phantom feet.”
Sometimes, as with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (it’s worth noting that Wallace was once Sims’s teacher), the best stuff is buried in the footnotes (in Wallace’s case, the endnotes). But one key difference: with Wallace, the best stuff was almost always abstract thinking stuff, or lists, or running gags, or ephemera. With Sims, sometimes the buried best stuff is compressed exposition of memories of (or imaginings of) past things that might otherwise have made pretty excellent scenes, and they often open out onto the preoccupations that are at the book’s center (among them: the tortures and pleasures of memory, the paradoxically complete and incomplete nature of loss, the self-imposed obligations that rise from longing, the persistence of the unfinished business of childhood, the advisability of living well despite dread well-founded, the inability to ever truly know another person, the way people sometimes give up on life before they actually die, the difficulties that attach to the acceptance of death when so much remains unsaid and unresolved between the dead person and the survivor).
One pleasurable way of reading Infinite Jest is to skip the body text and just read through the endnotes. That wouldn’t work with Sims–his footnotes are even more thoroughly symbiotic with the body text than Wallace’s, and less separable, and body and footnote are even more interdependent. Although Sims’s (or at least Vermaelen’s) conception of the function of the footnotes has been clearly established — the phantom feet, the underworld in the text — sometimes one longs for an exteriorized reason for them, as well: Could they be annotations offered later in time than than the body text, annotations which show a change in the speaker’s way of understanding these events over time, or could they push back more evilly against the body text, one speaker undercutting another (as in Nabokov’s Pale Fire), or the speaker arguing with himself, as one will sometimes when one essays (and so much of this book does take a form reminiscent of the personal essay)? Could, as in Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, the text’s main body concern the exterior world and its immediate impression upon the speaker, and the footnotes represent more separately the second and third levels of thinking, and the digressive rabbit trails of thought they prompt?
The answer to all of these questions, mostly, seems to be: No. The footnotes seem to be offered as though they are composed roughly around the same time as the body text, and the speaker seems to be using them self-consciously toward the ends he proposes, a strategy made less improbable by Sims’s wise choice to make Vermaelen a hyper-bookish young man of the sort one could imagine engaging in this kind of play. It’s interesting, though, how in opposition to almost every footnote strategy I’ve ever seen in fiction (Nabokov, Wallace, Baker, Rick Moody, Jenny Boully, etc.), there isn’t anything particularly subversive about Sims’s use of the footnotes. It’s not uncommon to hear readers grumble about footnotes (“Aren’t they played out already?” is a thing I recently heard someone lazily say — lazily, because there aren’t many conventions anybody is using that aren’t appropriated from someplace else, and a writer could take any old convention and find a way to make it new, or find a way to use it so well in the old way that the reader is grateful anyway), and maybe Sims’s cheery, not-subversive use of the footnotes is the new thing that can be done with footnotes. Implicitly, the strategy says: Like you, I’ve read some things that used footnotes in a way that gave me pleasure, and I can’t see fit not using them myself, as an extension of that pleasure, so why don’t the two of us, reader and writer, enjoy together one pleasant thing they do, which is the adding of a second layer, a second voice, even if it is simply the second voice in the first head, the second voice most intelligent people have cultivated to allow a second thought to complicate or clarify to dig deeper into the first thought. (Like the writer, this reader says: Why not?)
The “Aren’t they played out already?” question might also be asked of the zombie book as a form. By way of answer: In addition to its subversion of the usual zombie story tropes, A Questionable Shape diverges from other zombie books in its tone (even, almost flat, matter-of-fact, accepting of the trouble that has been and the task at hand) and in its other-than-apocalyptic position, hurricanes and undead epidemics notwithstanding. This isn’t The Road or Surviving the Game in terms of its understanding of human beings. Its closest literary kin, tonally, is Donald Antrim’s Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, except that in Mr. Robinson, Antrim likes to build the moats and spring the booby-traps, and every tonal decency is in service of an overarching darkness, and can be read ironically, as black humor delivered exclusively by the straight man. In A Questionable Shape, society hasn’t broken down. Society, and government, are functioning as well as they might under the circumstances. And this isn’t the Louisiana of Hurricane Katrina, where the have-nots can rot. This is a state deeply concerned about the protection and welfare of its scariest damaged citizens. There is something appealingly naive, earnestly optimistic, almost utopian, about this vision. It is more Star Trek: The Next Generation than Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo.
All of this is of a piece with a kind of youthful slant the narrator has on everything. In many ways, A Questionable Shape is a Bildungsroman. Vermaelen is trying build a home and a life with Rachel, a first real adult love of the cohabiting sort for both of them. Matt Mazoch is trying to work through the burdens he still carries from childhood, from his parents’ divorce and separation and the estrangement from his father he wants so badly to bridge. The pressure of the outbreak of undeadness allows some of these longings to be satisfied. When the narrator and Rachel are forced to install plywood outside the windows and barricade the inside with refrigerators and bookcases and sofas, their apartment begins for the first time to feel like home. “We had protected it,” he says, “and it was protecting us. It was what was keeping the bad things outside. What a beautiful apartment!”
There is something more to say about the tonal naivete of the narrator. There is no failure of intelligence here. There is no lack of planning, of preparedness, of effort, of willful engagement with the world. There is, instead, a kind of appealing thing one sometimes sees (or experiences) in life, but seldom sees in literature: The narrator seems to be a person for whom certain varieties of human interaction are a little foreign, or at least for whom social skills, social cues, group dynamics, and so on, don’t come easily, but for whom these things are studyable, replicable, tryable, doable. The mind, which resides inside a young adult, is just becoming able to open itself, developmentally, to things that the peer group probably figured out earlier, and there is a corresponding and often beautiful sense of wonder at what is gradually made known to be part of the possibility of the world. The feeling it provokes in the reader is powerful: Suddenly, empathy is possible. Suddenly, romantic love is possible. Suddenly, the world is flush with color.
One way this extraordinary characterization of the narrator manifests itself is in the richness of the sensory world, which is rendered almost exclusively in a luminant and saturated palette. (Thankfully, there’s no withholding of the pleasures of the interior life and the sensory life here, none of that stingy and all-too-common striving after subtlety which isn’t subtlety at all but is really an ultra-thin vagueness, which somehow has become synonymous in some writerly circles with the idea of the “literary.”) An important memory of Vermaelen’s for example, an afternoon hiking in a pine-forested park with Rachel, is drenched in amber, all sorts of variations of the color yellow, a goldness, a sun-drenchedness. When Vermaelen imagines Matt Mazoch in his father’s old house, he imagines his friend taking “long sommelerian drafts of his father’s shirt collars,” so that later, when it was time to “confront the corpse of the man, and be repelled by its dead fetor,” he could have begun the day “with just a little of his human scent.”
There is a pleasing and related little subplot the book engages implicitly, which has to do with the Vermaelen’s inability to really know the interior life of his friend Matt Mazoch, so he spends a lot of mental energy (the footnotes provide a nice space for it) in imagining what Matt must be thinking, or how he must be feeling, or what he must be remembering, or what he might say or do or think in the future. That’s a central drama of friendship that not enough works of fiction address quite so directly, and Sims rightly privileges it, even though it’s thought rather than action, and even though it’s conjecture rather than fact, as the interesting, space-taking thing that it also can be in the life lived off the page.
Mazoch’s father, sixty-four when he went missing, was a plumber, an antiquer, an obese eater of fast food. He lost custody of Mazoch in an early divorce, and although Mazoch imputes great special meaning to many of the places where he had spent any time at all with his father during childhood, it is unclear whether or not these places held any reciprocal specialness to Mazoch’s father. By time Vermaelen knew of him, there was already something of the undead about Mazoch’s father, a kind of abdication of life. He “seemed not to have minded sleeping on an unsheeted mattress or heaping his soiled clothes at the end of the hallway and piling clean clothes at the foot of his bed; or letting scum develop in the bathroom, and his toiletries crowd all over the sink, and letting the tiles of the floor dislodge, uprooted from their grout; or ignoring a leak in the roof until a water stain spread gangrenously down the wall . . .” (This sentence goes on for the length of another half page, cataloging the banalities of “a moribund life, a deathbed life, lying alone and complacent at the center of a massing decay.”)
This is another metaphor — undead before undeath — the book is keen to explore. If the epidemic of undeath heightens the lives of some of the living, it also draws into stark relief the lifelessness that can attach to a kind of living that isn’t really doing much in the way of living.
Eventually, the metaphor of the undead turns more sharply in the direction suggested by the book’s second epigraph, from Jalal Toufic’s Undying Love, or Love Dies: “Human love is implicated with death, because it implies either resurrecting the beloved or following the spouse into the death realm. It is fitting that the lost one is a synonym for the dead one, since the dead are lost de jure and one loses them de facto in the labyrinth. Marriage requires the spouse to follow his wife into the labyrinthine realm of death… To follow them into undeath, as Orpheus did. Orpheus is the model spouse.”
In this case, it’s not marriage that calls these matters most strongly into question, but rather it is filial love, and the retrospective longing for it. It seems a disservice to the reader to give away the book’s two final thrills — one of which is imagined, the other of which is realized incompletely. But suffice it to say: After Monday through Friday, there comes Saturday, first day of hurricane season, the day of roadblocks, the beginning of the end of quarantine solutions (floating barges, etc.) that aren’t sustainable, that can’t be anything but temporary. “The one day we overstep our deadline,” Vermaelen says, “on our first supernumary day–Mazoch drives us into a maelstrom of moaning corpses.” And the question, naturally: Is Mazoch’s father among them?
It’s a question not so far removed from all the questions death foists upon us. Where did our loved ones go? Will we ever see them again? If we do, how will they have been changed? What do I do with my memories, my longings, my hurts, the things unresolved between us? Are they now forever unresolved? And what do I do about my own life, knowing it will one day end, knowing that every day of living is a day lived in the shadow of the dread of the thing that is surely coming?
These are the same questions the survivors of the zombie epidemic are in one way or another asking themselves and asking one another, and Bennett Sims is wise enough to have understood that these questions are tremendously more interesting than zombie chases and the slow attrition of the living toward the ranks of the undead, and that, anyway, the reason zombie stories keep us up at night has less to do with the walking dead than it does with the living who yet walk among us and the knowledge that they, we, all of us, will one day walk no more.
Ultimately, thankfully, A Questionable Shape is not a book about zombies and hurricanes. It is a frighteningly wise book about how we choose to really live our lives despite the dread of the thing that is surely coming.