Tuesday, March 03, 2009

How to Make a Zombie (in One Bloody Step!)

Before he came to UCSC for his PhD in Literature, Fosco did MA coursework at a depressing commuter university somewhere in the snowy Midwest. One of Fosco's professors there was a specialist in the work of prolific contemporary writer Joyce Carol Oates (aren't academic specialties sad sometimes?). This professor once admitted to Fosco that she'd only ever thrown away two books in her lifetime (this is always a fascinating confession for a bibilophile to make; Fosco himself has never thrown away a book--he even has a Book of Mormon floating around somewhere, and you know how Fosco feels about Mormons).

The two books that this book-loving professor discarded were:

  • Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (which she accused, not incorrectly, of misogyny)
  • A Joyce Carol Oates novella entitled Zombie
Naturally, Fosco took this confession as a challenge; consequently, he immediately signed up to do an in-class presentation on Zombie later in the quarter (Fosco can be kind of a dick when he wants to be). Luckily, the professor was a good sport about this.

But the joke was on Fosco: Zombie is a hella disturbing book. Fosco has mentioned before that JC Oates's fiction tends to be "ripped from the headlines." Well, Zombie is her attempt to get inside the mind of someone like Jeffry Dahmer. That mind, and consequently the entire novella, is absolutely terrifying and disgusting. The protagonist of Zombie kidnaps teenage boys and attempts to turn them into sex zombies by lobotomizing them through the eye socket with an ice pick. And if you think that Joyce Carol Oates left out the graphic parts, well, you'd be wrong. There are even drawings and diagrams in the margins of the text. Fosco gets nauseated just thinking about the book again. (Needless to say, Fosco's class presentation was, um, upsetting).

But because it's not enough that this story exists as a novella, someone had to go and write a stage play based on it. This is the recent brief NYT review of the play "Zombie," which is playing off-Broadway this spring--no doubt before beginning a run at Disney's New Amsterdam Theater in Times Square.

The Times review of "Zombie" is off-the-mark, I think. The author notes that
The banality of evil isn’t a new subject in literature or drama, but fiction rarely reveals this much this clearly.

Mr. Connington commits totally to this haunting characterization and leaves us wondering exactly what kind of people are walking the streets alongside us.
As a description of the novella, I think this is absolutely wrong. Zombie is not about "the banality of evil." Just because you cannot tell by looking at someone that he or she is a mass murderer doesn't mean that his or her evil is banal. There is a difference between the kind of evil that is performed selfishly or unthinkingly by everyday members of society (what we might call "banal" evil) and the evil that is perpetrated by homicidal maniacs like the protagonist of Zombie. The zombie-maker may think that his behavior is rational and that his desires are like those of everyone else, but his delusions of normality don't actually make him normal. This is Grade-A crazy evil in the novella, and I refuse to accept that "Zombie" is intended to teach us some lesson about the secret lives of our neighbors. This isn't American Beauty.

Instead, I see the point of Zombie (to the extent that it has anything as clumsy as a "point") to be an exercise in confronting the absolute otherness of evil. We are not meant to "imagine ourselves into" the mind of the protagonist; we are not meant to recognize ourselves in this novella. Rather, we are presented with a terrifying vision of otherness that we are only too happy to resist assimilating. I think this is an interesting project: a narrative that wants to prevent the identification of the reader. However, I don't know what the political/social consequences of such a project may be--especially in this case.

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Jill said...

I read a book once that was set in New Orleans (probably why I picked it up). It was about a particulary gruesome serial killer...a genre that I don't normally read. It was so horrible that I've blocked out the title and author. I threw that book away. I didn't want it in my home and I was dissapointed in myself that I continued to read it till the bitter end. It made me wonder the kind of mind that was capable of imagining and writing about such inhumane horror. Obviously Torture Porn is not my thing.

Anonymous said...

Oz recognizes himself in the novel; it's like looking in the mirror...

word verification: fulapho

Oz could only wish. Pho is really good when sick (in the head)