This ain’t your granddaddy’s zombie-apocalypse. Everything in Bennett Sims’s stunning debut courts a topographical and invasive examination of the human condition through our inverse. The architecture of zombie-logic is rewired, and the undead become symbolic for what it means to exist in all its physical and existential, its beauty and brutality.
Post-Katrina. Docile shapes fringe the horizon of greater Baton Rouge. Hurricane season looms yet again, threatening the security of Mississippi barges that quarantine thousands of zombies. If the barges breach, a second epidemic is likely. A Questionable Shape follows Vermaelen over one week as he helps his friend, Matt Mazoch, search for his undead father, retracing “haunts” Mr. Mazoch might return to in his zombified state. But hurricane season is also dwindling the window of opportunity to find him.
Sims escalates the psychological state of the undead, giving them, essentially, purpose. Reanimated, these zombies pursue places from memories. Reanimation, thus, becomes a kind Resuscitation. What the genre formerly defined as a vacant shell of rudimentary desire, Sims infuses with recollection, humanizing the traditionally dehumanized.
“What we know about the undead so far is this: they return to the familiar. They’ll wander to nostalgically charged sites from their former lives, and you can somewhat reliably find an undead in the same places you might have found it beforehand. Its house, its office, the bikelanes circling the lake, the bar. ‘Haunts.’ … In fact, what it calls to mind are those homing pigeons, the ones famous and fascinating for the particles of magnetite in their skulls: bits of mineral sensitive to electromagnetic pulls and capable of directing the pigeons, like the needle of a compass, homeward over vast and alien distances. It is as if the undead are capable of ‘homing’ in this way.”
“…our ‘walking dead’ don’t simply walk: anytime an undead is walking, what it’s really doing is remembering. It’s retracing steps from its former life and moving blindly along a vector of memory. In this way, the tracks that it leaves (of rainwater, of dirt across a carpet, of blood) record more than a physical path: they also materialize a line of thought, the path of that remembering.”
A Questionable Shape is guided not just by the search for Mr. Mazoch, but by the search for a more satisfying understanding of memory and its ancillary properties. It is an overall quest for meaning. Is memory affected by importance and emotional-potency? Or, is it indifferent, mere muscle-memory? Vermaelen obsesses about the logistics of undeath—how each zombie sees, “speaks,” and chooses memories, places to return to. Vermaelen himself becomes somewhat of a walking dead—abeyant when he’s too afraid to leave his apartment out of fear of infection, and later, scrutinizing the why and how of undeath, instead of focusing on his life with his girlfriend, Rachel, who works at one of the quarantine sites.
In one footnote, Vermaelen considers reanimation, and the possibility of Rachel’s infection (during moments he could, instead, be creating memories with her). He deliberates that if she were to reanimate, and remember a time before him, it might reveal a deeper unconscious truth that he was not as significant to her as some former lover:
In this zombism, memory becomes a barometer for affection, truth, and significance. If Mr. Mazoch does not “home” to a meaningful location he shared with his son, does this lack of remembering reflect his love for Matt? When Vermaelen and Rachel practice “defamiliarization” survival strategies (detaching visual stimuli (and associated memories) from loved ones), it is an attempt to unrecall, to generalize. Because to view an undead as the former self, the remembered living body, is to become vulnerable, susceptible to bite.
The scrutiny of detail throughout A Questionable Shape attempts wring from it definition, reminiscent of David Foster Wallace. The narrative warmth and voice draws parallels to writers as far back as Gogol and Babel, and more recently Ben Marcus. The book itself is a textual representation of a zombie—the body purports Matt and Vermaelen’s visits to Mr. Mazoch’s house, the high grass of an abandoned park, other places Matt’s father might remember and return to; the footnotes of Vermaelen’s ruminations, digressions, and anecdotes become a grave space that, as Vermaelen describes, disturbs and infects the body above.
But despite the reinventions of cult-form, the classic zomb-enthus will thrill at Sims’s mastery. Conventional characteristics of zombies are filtered through the lenses of Wordsworth, Wittengenstein, Chalmers, VS Ramachardran—assaying how the undead act, think, see, and remember. Reanimation is also hypothesized as a metamorphosis similar to that of a chess pawn being queened. Maybe Vermaelen is suggesting that undeath grants a free-roaming capability of all conscious, subconscious, and existential planes.
Maybe Sims is suggesting that to become undead is to evolve.
Zachary Tyler Vickers is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where he was the Provost’s Fellow. He’s the recipient of the Richard Yates Prize, The Clark Fisher Ansley for Excellence in fiction, and has appeared in Hobart, KGB Bar Lit Journal, Waccamaw, and elsewhere. He’s currently completing a novel.