A Questionable Shape by Bennett Sims
It is tempting, in the spirit of our meme-ridden times, to retitle Bennett Sims's debut novel, A Questionable Shape, something more indicative of both its rigorous theoretical ambition and its sublimely popular pop-cultural premise. Being and Nothingness (and Zombies!) comes to mind. Or, perhaps appropriate in a book where no cigar is left unsignified, one could evoke Freud. Civilization and Its Discontents (and Zombies!) has a nice ring to it, though it might be difficult to find a sufficiently succinct cover image. In all truth, however, the parenthetical nature of Sims's zombies (complete with their campy "milk-white eyes," shambling gaits, emblematic slobbering groans, and the blood stains darkening the fronts of their work-a-day grave-yard rags) is as much a part of the construction of the book as it is of any parodic, jazz-hands-to-the-apocalypse-esque title, the author could have, but chose not to, spoof.
The title itself, a quote from the fourth act of Hamlet, is as carefully chosen and precisely situated as any of the references in this densely resourced, philosophical zombie yarn. Addressing his father's risen spirit, clothed in its work-a-day steel armor, Hamlet asks, "What may this mean/ That thou, dead corpse,... Revisits thus the glimpses of the moon,/ Making night hideous, and we fools of nature/ So horridly to shake our disposition/With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?" And indeed, this is the central premise of the novel. When our reality is so horridly unreal, so beyond any recognizable precept of nature that all it can be said to mirror are the most derivative of back-row-make-out horror flicks, how are we -- the sparse survivors -- to go on? How are we to remain human? Bennett Sims asks. More to his point, when to be human is so fundamentally related to our ability to analyze and contextualize ourselves within the pretext of the unknown, and when the zombie unknown is so profoundly Other as to resist any of our attempts to insert our individual consciousness into its slobbering, groaning, blood-thirsty zeitgeist, how are we to think?
A Questionable Shape takes place in a future so near as to be almost the present. A life-long resident of Baton Rouge, the narrator, Michael Vermaelen, a self-described "stereotypically scrawny philosophy student," speaks to us from a home suddenly transfigured by the outbreak of a virus which causes its victims to rise famished from the dead and seek out the nearest vulnerable throat or calf or ankle to sate his or her insatiable hunger. So far a typical zombie story, complete with nods to a George Romero-style undead appropriation of capitalist iconography, though Sims cleverly frames his shopping mall zombie rampage as a YouTube video that has gone viral.
What immediately begins to set this novel apart, however, is that this particular apocalypse has taken place some months earlier. In the now of the novel, which spans the course of a week, the bureaucracy put in place to deal with such things has had a chance to establish itself. Much like in the aftermath of Katrina, a new normal -- one that includes the occasional decomposing straggler and an omnipotently ineffectual FEMA -- has asserted itself. In fact, so normal is the new normal, and so disinterested in its splatter-core forefathers is the novel, that it isn't until page fifty that the reader encounters an actual zombie. Even then this is in the form of a flashback, and the zombie, a jogger whom Vermaelen assumes is shuffling along the route he would have taken more or less automatically in life, is almost immediately refigured as a former human who, in his youth, could have been "one among that shoal of shirtless boys whom I used to see jogging listlessly, glistening, through the Garden District on humid afternoons."
Ultimately, the reader's first encounter with an actual zombie serves primarily to provide the narrator with an opportunity to think deeply about the nature of death and undeath, of memory, of the viral instinct that would, should he become infected, drive him home to his girlfriend, Rachel, where, overriding all his humanity, his sense of identity, of self, it would cause him to, "[bite] into my lover as I'd gnaw a pillow in my sleep." The zombie also, as is often the case in this book, provides Vermaelen, and Sims, the opportunity to describe in lush detail the interplay of light and shadow as it cloaks a place to which both speaker and author are clearly devoted. Much more than a simple setting, or even a convenient one given Louisiana's very real and very recent relationship with cataclysm, this Baton Rouge is predominantly home -- a loved place written with the careful accord of someone who has spent a lifetime observing its moods and weathers, its shifting lights.
That Sims is able to so seamlessly transition from brooding speculation on the nature of his character's own physical (though mostly existential) peril to descriptions of "a current of rustle traveled up the block, live oak by live oak, in a line of thrashing branches"; ibises in the stooped cypress resembling "pale hearts in empty ribcages"; or "the sun's suffusion in the air,... that... punched through the pine branches in great gold shafts, so like the conical tractor beams of hovering UFOs," underscores the essential dilemma of this novel. Things, all things, are inexorably changed and yet they are also very much the same. In the face of that paradox, what is any self-respecting student of philosophy with an encyclopedic recall of luminary minds from Heidegger to Sklovsky to Proust, Joyce, Wordsworth, Nietzsche, Giorgio Agamben and beyond to do? Think, of course. Think and think and think; delve ever deeper into that well of antediluvian, pre-zombie thought that, as Vermaelen says, "was supposed to teach me how to die, to prepare me for death, [but] has left me utterly unprepared to meet undeath."
For the reader, this insistence on the life of the mind when the life of the body is so fascinatingly imperiled (to die by infected bite? by dismemberment? by the random street violence that is so often the aftermath of "natural" disaster, by a deluge of slathering undead loosed from their quarantine by a second, even more ill-timed, Katrina?) could be both frustrating and fatiguing. All the more so because the plot, as Sims establishes it for us, follows the tantalizingly formulaic structure of a mythic quest. At the novel's opening, Vermaelen is entering the last week of a search he has embarked upon with his college friend, Mazoch, "LSU's model English major" slash bodybuilding mesomorph, to find his father, Mr. Mazoch, who has almost certainly been killed and then reanimated and now wanders the paths of his own memory somewhere in Baton Rouge. These three men form a triptych of isolation -- each immersed in his own thoughts (or droning lack-thereof), each further removed from the other by the fervor of their typifying obsessions (Mr. Mazoch was a hoarder of antiques; Mazoch himself is a workout fanatic and Vermaelen is revealed to be something of a competitive reader), and each with motives that remain inscrutable even to himself right up until the final pages of the book. Over the course of the week, Mazoch's anger at his father's symbolic desertion becomes increasingly alarming to Vermaelen. His response, motivated by Rachel's influence, is to counter his friend's insistent dehumanizing explication of the nature of undeath as a kind of blindness on all levels -- clinical, ontological and existential -- with an equally insistent humanist philosophy that triumphs the zombie's individuality even as Vermaelen wallows in the potentially impending loss of his own individual nature to death by zombie bite. Escalating tension, both between the friends and within Vermaelen's own psyche, ensues.
Sims's characters are well and tightly drawn -- more than a match for the saturated landscape and the aggressive conceit, which might otherwise compete for the reader's attention. The fact that both Mazoch and Vermaelen are scholars with a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for conceptual banter is undoubtedly a convenient pavilion for Sims to display his own exhaustive thought on the subject. Yet the tangential way in which Vermaelen thinks, his hesitance to define or codify his situation, his reliance on the security of his own knowledge, his palpable fear, transform him from an opportune mouthpiece to an affecting, sometimes quite touching, portrait of a young man who had built his identity on searching out the far reaches of the unknown and now comes disconcertingly face to face with it.
The only sour note in Sims's characterization is Rachel. Vermaelen's girlfriend of over a year, Rachel is left little more than an iconic woman-shape with few traces of a discernable inner life. She is described as having cropped blonde hair, green-eyes, a "Dutch jut" of a nose and a penchant for cartoon owl patterned pajama sets. In other words, beautiful, but accessible; an archetype available for "daily... sessions of unprotected sex," with Vermaelen, but also figured as the devout daughter who nursed her father through a long, crushingly debilitating illness without complaint. She serves mostly as a sounding board for Vermaelen's ideas -- or more accurately as an unwitting muse for some of his more involved thought-spirals -- and has a frankly befuddling reaction to the zombie apocalypse that seems to admit neither fear nor caution, resentment nor rage, but rather is described as a sort of universally uncategorical fondness.
Vermaelen tries to describe her relationship with the uncertain world thusly:
When for breakfast she eats a grapefruit on the landing, holding closed her bathrobe and watching the sunrise over the apartment complex's court-yard, and announces, "It's a perfect morning," she means all of it, nothing escapes her, not the sweet pink of the grapefruit, or the warm breeze, nor the bare light that collects in the glisten in her spoon, nothing, and if there happened to be an infected in the courtyard that morning, not that either. Her heart is like the sweep of a radar screen, this white line revolving a green field. Missing nothing and loving every blip.
Well, fine, I suppose. Every overwrought narrator needs his foil, but it is a bit much in a novel wherein everyone is always thinking to have the only female character be almost totally devoid of introspection about this new world order beyond the conclusion which Vermaelen draws for her: that her desire to rescue and succor the reanimated dead has something to do with her experience of her own father's death, whom, should his rotting corpse appear before her right now, she would be "as uncomplicatedly glad to see him as she would be to breathe in the smell of his smoke from her car seats..." (emphasis mine). Also, she's a child of the world, wide-eyed within the moment of her being. Also, the implication goes, she's a girl and thus her motives are somewhat inscrutable to begin with. Tellingly, while Vermaelen is capable of creating webs of literary connection across the spectrum for even his most tangential thought and Mazoch tapes Thomas Hardy quotes to the dashboard of his car to serve as inspiration, the only book referred to in context with Rachel is Lolita. Even then, we hear nothing of what she might have made of the book, but only that she has read it and perhaps scrawled some thoughts -- or maybe just vague exclamations of happiness -- in the margin.
To be fair, it is hard to fault Sims for this kind of marginalization when Vermaelen himself is such an insistent narrator. He describes Rachel, and his relationship with Rachel, with the kind of breathless wonder of someone who simply cannot, even after all this time, believe his great good fortune, and yet feels uneasy about the potential imbalance in the good fortune she may have found in him. The result is a familiar sort of nerd-boy sexism wherein the nerd in question infantilizes the woman even as he pretends he is excoriating his own neurosis or lack of worldly sense and upholding her as a paragon of normalcy, courage, sensibility and other goddessy traits. As with Mazoch, whose physical prominence and decisiveness Vermaelen admires even as he attacks their motives, it is hard for a reader to doubt the realness of the relationship between the speaker and the people he has surrounded himself with; or, however misguided its application, his love.
In the end, the conflict among Mazoch, Vermaelen and Rachel, while sometimes tense and always masterfully detailed, never really erupts into anything remotely like a confrontation -- more like unspoken resentments that are allowed to simmer but never boil. Similarly, while the search for Mr. Mazoch is replete with tantalizing clues, it doesn't amount to much more than driving from locale to locale, peering through binoculars, observing the light, and thinking until the last chapter of the novel. Even then, Mr. Mazoch himself (doubly unknowable! both father and zombie!) remains an uncertain figure, perhaps even an unseen one. Yet, for all its reluctance to engage, A Questionable Shape is a compelling novel. As wise as it is smart, it does not seek to answer the unquantifiable questions it raises, but rather keeps asking. The central philosophical dialectic the novel follows is Lacan's. If lack is related to desire, as Lacan postulates, and furthermore, if lack causes desire to arise and lack of being creates a desire for being itself, then in a world where so much is now defined by its absence, what can the characters left behind do but want? What can a character like Vermaelen, who has always desired primarily to think, do but conflate his thought, his love, his fealty and his duty into one long, unspooling discourse which is as much about the nature of an idea as it is about the nature of the self; about the privilege to think versus the impulse to remember; about being as opposed to nothingness; about zombies, and, as all great monster movies (and Nietzsche) know, about what happens where you stare too long into the void and feel it looking back.
A Questionable Shape by Bennett Sims
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