Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 4: These Are Evil Times

In the introduction to the first trade paperback collection of his comic book
The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman writes:

I'm not trying to scare anybody. If that somehow happens as a result of reading this comic that's great, but really...that's not what this book is about...

The Walking Dead I want to explore how people deal with exterme situations and how these events CHANGE them. I'm in this for the long haul....Everything in this book is an attempt at showing the natural progression of events that I think would occur in these situations. This is a very character driven endeavor.

And so on. Kirkman seems pretty nervous about the prospect of his zombie magnum opus being mistaken for a horror story, but, while maybe not in so many words, Kirkman is basically expressing the, I guess, mission statement of a lot of young contemporary writers of zombie fiction. A lot of these guys want to treat zombie stories like The Road, and they've been wanting to do that since before The Road was even published. This is, in theory, a wonderful thing, from my point of view. I think it's more than a little disingenuous to act as if zombies being the instigating event in these stories of survival and humanity and loss is completely arbitrary, which Kirkman comes very close to doing in his introduction, but still, the ambition is worthy. Often, however, the execution is not worthy of the ambition.

I'm not here to review The Walking Dead (for the record: don't like the comic, like the TV show), but Kirkman is one of two, maybe three, writers working today who are shaping modern zombie fiction more than anyone else. I tend to think that all this shaping is doing is bringing the subgenre back to its more or less serious roots, before camp and jokes took over, so there's an awful lot of backtracking involved in this trailblazing, but, again, that's perfectly ho-kay by me. The important thing, for our purposes, is that in John Joseph Adams's The Living Dead 2, his follow-up to The Living Dead, which I talked about yesterday, there are short stories by each of these two-maybe-three writers: Robert Kirkman; Max Brooks, author of the hugely successful The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z; and David Wellington, the "maybe three" one. I almost didn't read Wellington's story because his zombie trilogy, which begins with Monster Island, is possibly too much of a cult item to be all that influential, but I wouldn't know mainly because -- and this is perhaps more to the point -- I haven't read it. I have some experience of both Kirkman and Brooks, but not Wellington. That never stopped me before, though, so I soldiered ahead.

And what I ended up with, after reading these three stories, is, to me, pretty interesting. That's if your definition of "interesting" has room for the phrase "pretty much what I expected", but I guess mine does. Take Kirkman's story, for instance. It's called "Alone, Together", and it tells the story of Timothy Stinnot who, following the zombie outbreak, loses his wife Dianne, a woman he loved basically because, from what I can tell, she once came to his apartment wearing only a trenchcoat and pant-legs attached to garters to complete the illusion. He admired the work that went into that, but then she got eaten. So now Timothy, who narrates as if this were a rather long journal entery, or maybe confession, has hooked up with another woman named Alicia, her fiance' James, and a few others, though pretty quickly that group is reduced to just Alicia and Timothy. Timothy comes to love Alicia ("I desire Alicia extremely", which, never mind), and though he acknowledges this may be due to sheer loneliness (physically, she's not his type, and she probably wouldn't do that whole pant-leg thing, either) and shared grief, he, quite understandably, doesn't care.

So "Alone, Together" tries to be a kind of love story, and finally also one of moral collapse. But while Kirkman does hit a couple of effective notes -- including a trip by Alicia and Timothy to a grocery store that they hope hasn't been completely emptied out; I always find the "quest for food" portions of such stories effective, partly because food is good to eat, but also because I can feel the hope and excitement of the characters as they prepare to search. Think of the bomb shelter windfall in The Road, or, to reverse it, the portioning out of a tuna sandwich in Scott Smith's novel The Ruins -- "Alone, Together" eventually fails because it hinges on a twist. Not an unbelievable twist by any means, but by structuring the story this way, Kirkman never has to really deal with it because he doesn't give himself any time. It occurred to me that this might explain why twists are so popular at least among writers, because whatever the revelation is does not need to be woven into the rest of the story. Hints of its existence do, but actual emotional blowback of any but the most short-term kind would get in the way of the stinger, and so must/can be skated past. This is what Kirkman does, for all his talk about taking the subgenre seriously and telling character-based (whatever the hell that means) stories, he still takes the easy way out.

Not so David Wellington, though, or almost not so David Wellington. His story, "Good People", is about a group of survivors who have found shelter in an abandoned motel. They work together, like each other, and have pinned all their hopes for any kind of future to each other. Darcy, a young woman with a young daughter, is our a narrator, and along the way we learn that she's rather fond of Vance, the group's de facto leader, a man who is essentially decent and who is not so rigid that he wasn't willing to shoulder the practical inconvenience of taking Simon, a legless young man with Asberger's, into the group. Simon is an odd character, and rather on-the-nose. I mean, couldn't he have been blind, too? But the truth is, what's oddest about Simon is that his function in the story is neither what I supsected or feared it would be. Where "Good People" is going is not altogether unlike "Alone, Together"'s moral collapse, in a general way, but it is not about moral collapse. The title, "Good People", might have a wink in it, but it's not exactly ironic. The gist is, as with any zombie story, at some point the zombies actually attack, and Wellington has moved his characters around in such a way that someone is going to have to make some very difficult decisions. In "Alone, Together", the decision that is central to the story results in Kirkman's, and the readers, judgment, and in the context of that story, the judgment is entirely justified. But in Wellington, it is impossible to judge what happens, because who are you to say you'd do things differently, and if you did things differently, who are you to say that you would be right? This may not be new ground, but it's interesting anyway. "Alone, Together" is simple what you'd expect.

Meanwhile, what Max Brooks's "Steve and Fred" is, I couldn't tell you. I can say it's not good, and I can say that Brooks seems to harbor some weird resentment towards the subgenre he's become increasingly obsessed with, to the point where he seems to be trying to smirkily kick back at stuff that was never actually there. By now, of course, Brooks has reason to believe that he's the zombie genre's Great Savior. His 2006 novel World War Z has been hailed as the ultimate zombie novel (I have no clue what the previous frontrunner for that title might have been), and has been praised for Brooks's sharp eye for the details of a zombie uprising, and global political and social ramifications of such a thing, and a generally sober and serious and human approach to it all, with the novel's non-fiction, oral history structure considered by many to be its primary masterstroke. What you need to ignore is that all the voices included in the oral history read exactly the same, that Brooks's complete absence of style renders the whole thing a terrible grind, the fact that Brooks doesn't actually seem that smart about some of this stuff (why would the American military of the near future not think to employ strategies that they currently employ right now, as we speak, routinely, pre-zombie outbreak? Read the much-praised "Battle of Yonkers" section from World War Z and wonder the same thing) and the fact that for all the potential for variety World War Z's very premise seems built for, there is a relentless and oblivious repetition to Brooks's novel that no amount of country-hopping can mask (yes, I know, the South African bit, and so forth -- there are maybe three exceptions to this, and even the South African bit strained so desperately for significance I was worried it was going to pull a muscle).

So clearly I was pretty primed to love "Steve and Fred". Okay, yes, it sounds like I have it in for Brooks, but he makes it hard not to. I mean, what is "Steve and Fred"? I can take a pretty good guess at what it thinks it is, which is a mocking swipe at all those other zombie stories, the ones that aren’t like World War Z. The weirdest and most annoying thing about Brooks is this idea that he’s the guy who can map out what a zombie apocalypse would actually be like. The so-called “realism” of World War Z is its biggest selling point. I saw a guy leave a dismissive and frustrated comment on a movie website – the topic was zombie films, I guess – the upshot of which was that tanks would be entirely ineffective against a zombie horde, and Max Brooks had shown us why. Because this issue has been addressed, and if you have neither the inclination nor cognitive ability to seek out and understand Brooks’s writings, the commenter is not about to waste another breath on you. I’ve seen the book discussed as reference material. Brooks has proven…etc. The fact that the book has no personality no doubt helps with this delusion.

In “Steve and Fred”, Brooks is clearly upset at all the writers who do not take zombies as seriously as he does. The story is broken into two parts. In the first, we meet Steve, a cartoonish action hero who drives motorcycles over zombies and executes miraculous jumps and kills leader zombies and then romances a sexy scientist. Then Brooks pulls the rug right out from under us by revealing that none of that was real!!!

I’ll give you a minute to collect yourself.

What’s actually real is Fred, protagonist of the second part of Brooks’s story. Fred has been reading a novel (a fake story!) about zombies, which is what all that Steve stuff was – a story within a story. Fred is nothing like Steve, and is in fact – how’s this for a cold dose of truth? – a fat loser nerd trying to just barely survive a real zombie outbreak. But my question is, what zombie fiction is Brooks satirizing here? On film and on paper, good and bad, one of the ways you can distinguish zombie fiction from other horror subgenres is the overall sense of hopelessness. The best case scenario is that a couple people live, but they’re still in the middle of the end of civilization. Action heroes, of the kind represented by Steve, do not exist in zombie stories (or any other horror stories that I’m personally aware of). However, Brooks is apparently so committed to retaining his place as the truth-telling king of completely made-up zombie shit that he has resorted to manufacturing enemies. His Frederick Wiseman does not have a natural Morgan Spurlock, but if Brooks makes enough fun of “Steve” then maybe no one will catch on that he’s a total fabrication.


Richard Harland Smith said...

I'm suffering through "The Walking Dead" comics now. Are they the worst-written graphic novels you have ever read, because they're up there for me. My God, the way all the characters over-explain everything and say exactly what they are feeling at every turn. You'd think a zombie apocalypse would turn people's thoughts inward or reduce conversation to the basics necessary for survival, giving mankind a chance, at last, to rediscover its essence. But no. That's not what happens. One character does tell another "Eat me." That was pretty wry.

bill r. said...

I don't know if they're the worst, because I won't pretend that I don't enjoy the illustrated zombie mayhem, but otherwise, yes. The writing is atrocious. I like how every argument ends in a fistfight. And if something profound (or "profound") is worth (or "worth") saying once, it's worth saying twice. "It's not like shooting the dead ones!" "It never should be, son. It never should be."

Also, WE are the walking dead. Jesus, how did I miss that??

Richard Harland Smith said...

I enjoy the general set-up but I wish Kirkman would STFU and let the characters move through the panel. You know, be graphic. You talk about the predictable fistfight, how about the predictable apologies after the predictable fistfight?!

The strangest character is the boy, Carl, who has this weird man-child thing going on. I don't know if Robert Kirkman has ever met a child.

Bryce Wilson said...

In all fairness I think that's kind of the point. Kirkman's trying to write a kid who hasn't been socialized the way we take for granted.

The Walking Dead might be imperfect, but I consider myself a pretty cold fish when it comes to media violence and at one point I actually had to set the book down and walk away from it because an act of (human) violence was making me genuinely upset in a way that hadn't happened in a looooonnngg time.

Sure he hits the schtick pretty hard, in one issue they find a truck of mattresses and theirs a panel of the cast smiling and I thought "Oh shit what terrible thing is going to happen now." Sure enough next page... But I've got to give Kirkman points for being able to circumvent my detached, desensitized lizard brain.

bill r. said...

Bryce, I don't think that comes through in the way Carl is written. Like Richard says, it comes off more like someone with absolutely no experience with children whatsoever. All Kirkman seems to understand about them is that sometimes they cry and are scared.

I wish I liked it the way you do, but man, I just can't engage on it on any level other than a gorefest with an enormous body count.

Richard Harland Smith said...

Kirkman's trying to write a kid who hasn't been socialized the way we take for granted.

You're farther in to the series than I am. I'm talking about him early on. He's not even drawn right.