Wednesday, June 02, 2010
Books: The novel as zombie.
Mark McGurl takes a look at the bumper crop of zombie books in n + 1 and comes up with a novel thesis: Zombies novels are so hot right now because the novel itself is now an undead genre.
To say that the novel is a zombie genre is therefore not only to say that it may have outlived its life as a key cultural form, animated now only by its connections to film and television on the one hand, the university on the other. It is also to say something about what has often been taken, most recently by Benjamin Kunkel in an essay in Dissent, as the novel’s chief claim to our attention and respect and even political hope. This is its capacity for the creation of deep, psychologically complex fictional characters, the kind we find at the center of realist novels like Pride and Prejudice. Their “roundness” makes space for our fondest hopes for humanity, that it might stop and reflect and set a course for a better world. To the extent that these characters continue to appear in contemporary fiction, do they succeed in killing the crowd of zombies gnawing at the metaphorical door?
The essay focus's almost entirely on the canon of American zombie film and literature (I think Shaun of the Dead might be the only non-US production mentioned), but McGurl manages to get quite a bit of stuff out of the relatively slim sample. First he zeros in on the idea of the "zombie" as a character in a very specific genre sense:
Zombies are “characters” in the sense recently revived by the critic Aaron Kunin—they are a type whose existence extends beyond any one work or even medium. This is why we can speak of “the zombie” in the first place, and why the specter of the ludicrous hovers even over the realist commitment to character. In his book on laughter Henri Bergson observes, “In one sense it might be said that all character is comic, provided we mean by character the ready-made element in our personality, that mechanical element which resembles a piece of clockwork wound up once for all and capable of working automatically. It is, if you will, that which causes us to imitate ourselves.” When “clockwork” characters show up in popular genre fiction, as they so often do, critics are apt to take them as an aesthetic offense to the human. It might be more accurate to say that our aesthetic displeasure in hackneyed types records our confrontation with a truth about the human we would rather deny, but which the zombie brings to the fore. As a kind of character, then, the zombie is a pure negation of the concept of character at the heart of Austen’s realism.
From there he goes on to discuss how the absence of anything like traditional characterization basically forces us to treat zombies as allegories.
So: Zombies are anti-characters, but they do make for good allegories, their very flatness propelling us into speculation about what they might mean “on another level.” Since one thing they mean on that other level would seem to be “flatness” itself, it will not do to criticize zombies for being stiff and uninteresting, as allegorical characters have been for at least a few hundred years . . . [Allegory's] intellectual virtues are too essential to be dissolved into realism and that its most vivid modern manifestations are to be found in genre fiction. Above all, in a way that realism rarely does, allegory gives us a kind of vivid speculative access to the superhuman designs, whether spiritual or natural, that structure consciousness from without. This is especially true of science fiction and horror. These designs may constitute the ultimate reality, in comparison to which ordinary experience is only a kind of dream, but when they are rotated into the space of representation they can look very “unrealistic” indeed. Their realism is what we might call a speculative realism.
Before he finally comes to the punchline:
Once upon a time the designs of allegory were understood by direct reference to theology, and more than a hint of end-of-days religiosity remains in recent evocations of the otherwise secular zombie “apocalypse.” Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is the best known and certainly the classiest example, trading up from the zombie to realistic-seeming depictions of postnuclear cannibals who want to eat a suspiciously Jesus-like boy. But look closely, notes Fletcher, and you will see that modernity brings about a basic reversal in the direction that allegory now tends to move. What used to take us higher toward celestial structures now takes us downward to the physical truths that determine our organic being and give it a hard deadline. McCarthy’s high seriousness as a writer has always coincided with a certain attraction to genre—in his case the western—but in a way the “badness” of actual genre fiction, the kind that never wins big literary awards, is a more authentic expression of our lowly, pulpy state. Real zombie stories are more honest about our essential stupidity than works like The Road, drowning out the last yelps of human pride in the tide of their own mediocrity.
I love that last line.
Which brings up this only semi-related issue. I found the image that kicks off this post GISing for some suitably zombificated imagery to use as an illustration. How f'ed up is that image? Sometimes I feel like the zombie holocaust just can't come fast enough.
DON'T STOMP THINKING ABOUT TOMORROW! If you haven't entered ANTSS Killer Kaiju contest yet, you freakin' should! It's as easy as stomping on your favorite scale-model city.