Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Demon Lover: Tam Lin in Newford

For the last month, I’ve been working my way through the ridiculous number of NetGalley titles I downloaded in a big frenzy once I remembered I had an account there. Of course I started with the stuff I knew was in my wheelhouse, to very good results. So time to start in on the less likely stuff! I’m generally not looking for taxing on my Sunday on the couch reads (or Sunday on the back porch, in more clement weather), and I figured something called The Demon Lover (by Juliet Dark, of course) with that cover would fit the bill. There’s a whole passel of books that have more or less that cover, and they tend to be young adult paranormal romance type stuff. Observe:

I’m not casting aspersions here, just making observations (partially because I have not read any of these books in question.) But given general impressions from reviews of similarly covered books, I figured I knew what I was in for here: young girl, maybe some tragedy in her young life to make her “deep”, meet cute with a bad boy/otherworldly creature, sudden love bordering on obsession, lots of angsting and misreading of the classics of Romantic literature. (Sorry to say, kids, but Cathy and Heathcliff can never be made to have a happy ending, and if they do, they are not Cathy and Heathcliff. Character is bloody destiny in that instance.)(Just kidding. I’m not sorry to say it.) But whatever Chardonnay-snorting near-snobbery from me aside, often these kinds of books have a vibrating energy to them, a pulse of often deeply misguided, but very real passion. You can do worse on a Sunday after reading a collection of considered, thoughtful, careful prose. Sometimes I don’t want to think but feel. 

So it was hugely surprising to me to find a musing, allusive, and referential novel here, complete with affectionate send-ups of academia and an almost matter-of-fact tone. Callie McFay – and I will take this moment to note that the names are awful, across the board – McFay barf is an adjunct professor type who has had some minor success with a Master’s-thesis-turned-pop-criticism book about vampires in the contemporary Gothic, and is now figuring out whether to publish or perish. She’s got a long-term long-distance bi-coastal relationship, and has obviously read a lot of Bakhtin, Gilbert & Gubar, and Marina Warner. Not that those things are related, making for a terrible sentence from me. Anyway, she decides to go in for a small college in upstate New York because of feelings, and pretty much all of the bitchy things I said would happen come to pass, except for the misreading of the classics part. Ms McFay (barf) has the Gothic classics down. And goddamn right. Oorah. 

If I were writing a blurb for this novel, which I would never be asked to do because my sentences heretofore have been for shit, I would say: Pamela Dean’s Tam Linmeets Charles de Lint‘s Newford. On acid. Actually, just kidding about the on acid part; that’s just a bad joke about blurbcraft. But The Demon Loverhas the everyday boringness (and I mean this mostly kindly) of Dean’s college fairy tale, and the nose-picking earnest wonder of de Lint’s “North American” - this means Canadian - city and its denizens. (I kind of can’t believe what a bitch I’m being here, and I’m sorry.) I had to swear off reading any more de Lint (except for short fiction) because of inherent blackness in my heart – Newford is just too wonderful for me – so the parts of this that reminded me of that fell flat. But Dean’s Blackstone College is pretty much my collegiate soul, so split differences at will. 

There are many aside observations here I enjoyed about the contemporary Gothic and its workings, but ultimately the action of the prose didn’t do it for me, and I can’t figure what the thesis might be, if you’ll allow me academical phrasing on this. Ms McFay falls in with an incubus, that soul-sucking Romantic/Gothic fantasy of the perfectly Byronic, tragic dude, and while I appreciated the clear-eyed, innuendo-less conversations about what that might mean, I had a hard time connecting with the emotional stakes. Some of this is tone, which is more sensible than usually found in Gothic romance. But certainly, this could be a function of my long-married pragmatic heart, which doesn’t have much patience with dramatic passion with assholes and users anymore. That is too much like work, and the rewards of not being sucked dry and killed by your lover are pretty awesome, especially if you don’t have the dress-billowing mania to make up for the whole Romantic death business. Lest I sound too negative, I do appreciate how this all works out for McFay, and the hard choices she makes, I just…I’m going to have to admit I’m getting old here. Gothic romance is freaking exhausting, which is possibly the take-home message here, which makes this book a little bit awesome. 

So, anyway, enjoyably smart fun, though maybe not the kind of fun advertised on the tin. And I downloaded this because I really wanted to get to The Water Witch, whose cover was much more enticing to me. Billowy dresses, you’re fine and all, but half-naked chicks rising out of the water? That’s the show. We’ll see what happens next Sunday on the couch.

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

A strange book, to be sure. The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord wears its influences on its sleeves so much that it’s more patchwork quilt than whole cloth. Star Trek (lots of Star Trek), Ray Bradbury, possibly Bujold (though it could just be similar influences, but the central characters remind me very much of Aral & Cordelia), the Janes Austen and Eyre (and I know it is monumentally unfair to conflate a real writer with a fictional character just because they have the same first name, but still I do it), the obvious Voltaire (or possibly Candide), LeGuin’s anthropology that often quests for the humaneness in our humanity. This is not going to work for many readers, especially after giving the usual your mileage may vary disclaimer about the influences. But the quilted quality, for me anyway, worked pretty decently with the the overriding themes of the novel: hybridization (as Mike notes, and you should read his review), the intersection of the domestic with societal, and love, love, love, baby.

This is the second science fiction novel I’ve read in the last month that focused at least as much attention to their interpersonal and romantic upheavals as to the more traditionally science fictional elements, and I find I like this a good deal. (And, the science fictional stuff here – like aspects cribbed pretty hard from some of my least favorite things, like Star Trek’s The Chase - were the least interesting part of the story for me.) Space opera especially can be very dudes-in-smoking-jackets-avuncularly-solving-society-with-reason, and that this book takes that reasonable computation – here is how we will solve our problems with Science! - and then puts the rubber to the road is actually quietly subversive. Yes, that’s a very nice theory you’ve got there, but when you resolve that plan down to specific human beings, who tend not to run to spec, you’re gonna have some problems. And the problems are not with the people, but with the plan.

Speaking of Star Trek, the opening is very much what happens in the third act of the most recent Star Trek movie – so spoiler alert on that, if you haven’t seen it – where the entire planet of Vulcan is destroyed, leaving a smattering of Vulcans in exile traumatized by genocide and weighted with the monumental task of rebuilding/preserving an entire culture. (I suppose this also happens in Star Wars when Leia’s home world of Alderaan is vaporized – seriously, that is not a spoiler – but that’s treated so topically as to be callous. Hey, a boy’s quest to manhood is way more important.) Ms. Lord notes in her afterward that this idea for her was sparked by reading about the lingering effects of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami that killed a quarter of a million people and displaced millions more. Because of a quirk of timing and culture, women were killed disproportionately, leaving sometimes whole communities of family-less men. A culture without women, without children, is not one that going to survive. (The reverse is true, certainly, but that’s not what happened.) So this is where we are with the Sadiri as well, and Cygnus Beta is suddenly a pioneer settlement filled mostly with Sadiri men.

Because the Sadiri are pretty much Vulcans – cool, mannered, intellectual – they build a little plan to entice (functionally) mail-order brides from the pluralistic society of Cygnus Beta to act as the new mothers of Sadiri. Ambassador Spock is tasked with surveying outlying communities for quanta of Sadiri genes, and mid-level Cygean bureaucrat/scientist Grace Delarua is sent along with him and his team. This is a pretty terrible idea – the whole assessing ladies for their breeding/genetic potential – and Grace even knows it. But whatever, road trip! We’ll just sort this shit out on the way. There’s a lot of sly commentary on racial construction in the novel – how the ways people look define how others respond to them, how racial characteristics are constructed and enforced, etc. (I actually laughed when someone exclaims “But slavery is illegal!” when the dawning realization that they are dealing with a culture predicated on slavery hits the group.) Which makes the white-washing of the cover that much more discouraging; I don’t think there is one character in this novel described as having white skin, and certainly Grace (who that is?) does not. But this has been going on in sff covers for a long time, witness the very dark-skinned Ged from A Wizard of Earthsea who has been subjected to whitewashed covers and “color-blind casting” (snort, as if) for decades. I kind of can’t imagine Ms. Lord had anything to do with this cover decision, and boycotting her work is punching a bystander, so I don’t really know what the solution is here. Strongly worded email to the publisher? Vocal bitching? Heaving dramatically ironic sighs?

The story is told mostly in Grace’s voice, which, as I gestured to in my last paragraph, is pretty breezy and chatty, sometimes irritatingly so. Sometimes less than snappy banter goes on for too long, and there are occasional dips into preciousness. But I think part of it is deliberate. Grace has an encounter with someone (trying not to go spoiler here) which is a pretty brutal assault on her mental autonomy, and it took me several chapters to have the magnitude of the assault sink in, partially because Grace jumps up and dusts off. Well, are we getting back to work or what? She’s got the glossomania of the traumatized, running scads of cheerful commentary on everything but the injury (not unlike Rae from Sunshine.) Mr Spock is doing the same thing, in his way, retreating into logic and genetics as solutions to a problem that is cultural, and therefore infinitely more non-linear. (To put it super dorkily; jeez.) It’s only through a series of glancing conversations – ones not about their traumas at all – that I began to see the avoidance mechanisms at work. Very subtly done.

Anyway, I predict that there will be many reviews of this book that dismiss it as just a love story, but The Best of All Possible Worlds - very overtly in places – reads to me as that sly kind of women’s fiction that says occasionally dangerous things about how we construct our societies, very gently and chattily drawing out our idealized visions of how people work and resolving them down to individuals. The syllabus is not the moment of insight. That Ms. Lord pulls this off in the historically all-male fantasy playset of the space opera is charmingly subversive as well. So, as I said in my opening, an odd book, patchy in places, with the kind of narrator who can even set the teeth of those inclined to like her voice (and for those who aren’t, forget about it). This book puts the soap in space opera, and I enjoyed greatly what came out in the wash.

I received my copy from NetGalley.com

Riveted: A Song of Ice and Fire

Without question, Riveted by Meljean Brook is the most accomplished of the Iron Seas novels so far, with a smooth and well-paced exposition, likable characters who do not behave like children or (worse) teenagers, and a trotting, road-trippy plot that doesn’t drop threads or wander off. Even the cover is better, without the greasy torsos of the first two novels. Greasy torsos really gross me out. Observe:

Admittedly, the Iron Duke looks pretty dry, but someone has oiled the second dude. Yuck. And it doesn’t make any sense, because that character was supposed to be a clothes horse and a dandy. I hate to say this, lest I sound like a hipster douchebag, but the UK covers are better across the board. Apparently, I’m out of step in my torso aesthetics with my country. Rule Brittania. 

David Kentewess is a vulcanologist traveling to survey Iceland for the alt-history version of the Royal Society; Annika is the daughter of an insular all-female society on Iceland. David also has personal reasons to locate and possibly expose Annika’s community. You can see how this might be a problem, despite a meet cute and the fact that they generally enjoy each other. There are other points of connection and fracture between the two of them, and Rivetedtakes time and care to build their relationship with an almost Regency-level restraint. (And I have noted before that this is more an alt-Regency steampunk world, less an alt-Victorian one, dirigibles notwithstanding. Though the first manned balloon flight was in 1783, which is kind of a trip if you think about it. Anyhoo.) 

So, it seems to me that romance novels – especially those that fall in to the broad rubric of paranormal – often deal with various kinds of body trauma. The paranormal, with it’s extreme and changing bodies – the animistic werewolf rippling with fur, the cold blood of the vampire, the insubstantiality of the ghost -almost externalizes that trauma (which doesn’t have to be sexual trauma, but because we’re dealing with body trauma here, almost always affects the sexual) and dramatizes it. Omg, I don’t want to drink blood; change into a monster; succumb to my biology. Et cetera. Certainly, this can be just badly done, and you can hit a bunch of anorexic ideation, slut-shaming, or just straight up rape fantasy, but trauma’s not actually ennobling, and pain and fear bite. But body trauma is often the heart of paranormal romance. 

Steampunk is on the far edge of paranormal – there are often scient-ish explanations for whatever megalodon/dirigible/automata – but a pulp sense of goofy hand-waving to explanation is happily part of the genre. And the Iron Seas books certainly have been taking on body trauma in their romantic pairings. I was not at all comfortable with Rhys and Mina’s deal in The Iron Duke - even while I really loved Mina’s character & the world in general. The whole Alpha male sub/dom thing was just too much for me, though I do appreciate that it’s addressed pretty head on. 

But here with David, we don’t have a big rippling alpha asshole who just has to pin down his lady love and fuck make love the trauma right out of her, but an almost virginal scientist who has been very seriously scarred in a volcanic eruption – one that also killed his mother. His monocle is not foppery, but a prosthetic replacing a lost eye. Three of his limbs have been replaced with prostheses as well. So he’s got some body issues: limited mobility, lingering survival guilt, still adjusting self-image and self-loathing, etc. I haven’t been much of a fan of virgins-lose-it tales, because, ahem, they almost never match up to the awkward reality, and they make me feel weird for how perfect everything is. But here it was sweet and awkward and occasionally painful – not just whatever hymen stuff, but painful in the sense that you can make some serious missteps while learning a lover’s body. Add in the fact that, if you think about, Annika more or less has to come out as hetero. We breeders almost never have to consider our sexual preferences as adolescents, least not the way gay people do anyway, so it is very interesting to see a straight person have to consciously make the choice of straightness, knowing that choice will lead to certain fractures with her community. 

This isn’t obnoxiously done or anything – there’s no Star Trek style arm wheeling about her single-gender community is just as wrong as the rest of them! or whatever, but that does bring me to why I couldn’t cough up that last star. This book is incredibly message-y, from gay rights to ableism to racism to fossil fuels to maybe some other other stuff I’m forgetting. It feels like a bitch-move from me to complain about this, but sheer number and occurrences of the messages got to be distracting, and I’m really sorry to say this, a little bossy. It’s not that I disagree – yes! don’t be dicks to people because of their sexual orientations! – but I felt a little choir-bound. Putting aside the bigots who won’t like this anyway – because fuck them – my main criticism is that so much was taken on – race! gender! the planet! disability! – that the take-homes felt dissipated and topically treated, except for the body trauma stuff. 

Anyway, another perfectly fun and intelligent alt-history/romance from Ms. Brook, one that balances the needs of the relationship against the needs of the plot in a near perfect manner. I certainly have my preferences for the thickly urban steampunk alt-history – and I did miss the London of the Iron Seas world – but the substitution of desolate, volcanic Iceland was pretty great. And there’s a character with my daughter’s name! I can see my house from here!

Oh, and by the way? Scientists are hot. 


From Bangable Dudes in History


mad scientist's daughter

The Mad Scientist’s Daughter: Collapsing Sadness

When I was in junior high, I knew this girl who claimed to be a test tube baby. She claimed a lot of fantastic things, like that she had no sense of smell because of the scientific tinkering of her experimental origins, and some other odd physical anomalies. I pretty much knew this was bullshit, but this was back before I could spend 15 seconds typing into a screen on my cell browser “first test tube baby US” and get the name and birthdate of Elizabeth Jordan Carr, born on December 28, 1981. Ms Carr was the 15th test tube baby in the world – as the NYTimes article notes,” in vitro,” the more commonplace term now, means “in glass” – born a full 7 years after the girl I knew had been born. I remember questioning my friend gently about her sense of smell: do you have trouble tasting things? Is it all just bland like you have a cold? Oh no, I taste everything fine. Oh, I thought, bullshit. We were never close or anything – in truth, I didn’t like her much – but I let all this slide.

Even with my somewhat flimsy adolescent class sense, I knew how poor her family was. They – she, her mother, and a round-robin of her mother’s “boyfriends” – lived above a corner grocery, the kind that sells Campbell’s soup for double its price, cigarettes and 3.2 beer. Her family didn’t even have a phone, but used the pay phone on the corner. They weren’t the only ones, and there was this complicated set of protocols and negotiations when you called it – gather ’round children, because pay phones used to exist, and they used to accept incoming calls: the guy who would bang on the door to the stairs leading to their apartment, leaving the phone hanging, the guy who wouldn’t, the corner store owner with an angry, thick accent who would go through periods of 86ing her family (I think for non-payment of their credit, but also for more noise-centered complaints). Corner store owners used to extend credit, young’ens, in a notebook-under-the-register kind of way. They still may, if the great gossiping neighbor center who is Mohammed at the corner store on my block is any indication. I’ve certainly walked out of S-Mart with goods I didn’t have the money for, but just because I forgot my wallet like an idiot. I could be into him for hundreds if I were closer to the edge. There but for the grace of God, etc.

So I knew what she said was bullshit, but I got why she was running that line of bullshit. The science fictional aspects of her supposed conception added a shine of dramatic ethics to her impoverished upbringing. Again, children, this was long enough ago that the whole concept of “test tube babies” had this op-ed worthy hand-wringing about it. You could still run the false-Darwinian line about how in vitro fertilization was violating the spirit, if maybe not the letter, of survival of the fittest with a straight face – nevermind any business about God and His Will and whatnot – and you could run it without hitting millions of children who have been conceived this way since then. I myself know at least a half dozen. I’m not saying that the ethics of in vitro fertilization have been solved or anything. I got into a surprisingly fractious argument with my husband about a specific messed up situation created by IVF, and we concluded our argument with the understanding that even people who generally agree about the broad moral questions are going to get tripped up by issues of gender, personhood, and ownership. At a certain point, all that crystalline logical scaffold teeters and collapses into hard core interpersonal gut-reaction.

Catarina is five years old when her father returns one day with an android named Finn. Cat is five, so she doesn’t quite get what Finn’s extraordinary assistance might mean. There have been automata and AI in this scorched, rebuilding world, but Finn is unique, more and less human than anything that came before. But five years old does not mean but be. She decides Finn is a ghost, because that makes sense to five. My daughter just turned six on Christmas, and we recently had a long conversation about how the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy are obviously me, but Santa is real. As much as I’ve always believed in not running bullshit on my kids, I just didn’t know what to say there. I figure in a year or two the world will inevitably crush her understandings of Santa’s precise reality, and it’s not like I need to be the messenger there. Which is one of the many things that clove me about this story: the way I completely empathized with both parent and child, feeling the hard shocks of understanding when Cat’s mother snaps at Cat’s choices – I wasn’t built to be a housewife; no girl is – while bleeding for the casual judgement. Jesus, what we do not in the name of love, but because of love and our studied ignorances. Finn acts as tutor to Cat, and the world and its ethical understanding changes around them as they change. They move from a world in which the term test tube babies dissolves into the commonplace in vitro fertilization, but that doesn’t mean the hard core interpersonal gut-reaction is just semantics.

I kind of don’t want to get into the mechanics of the plot, because I’m not sure concrete action says anything about the long tides of lived lives. Cat grows; she goes to school; she marries. That’s just facts. But about halfway through, I sat up on the couch and said to my husband, this is so sad, I’m not sure I can take it. I spend the next half of the book near weeping, and if I’m going to be honest, weeping. We are such disastrous creatures, humans, and it’s not such a huge surprise that the consciousnesses we create will be disastrous too. Part of this is that on a very overt level, this is an unrequited love story; this is an emotional response to intrusive technology, and the cultural scaffold is less important than the teetering and its fall into the personal.

I was very careful in the last paragraph not to use the word romance in relation with Finn & Cat, which I think belies in me a certain discomfort with love and sex and the domestic in fiction. Certainly, the term romance applies in many ways, though more in its capital-R incarnation: the Romance. Romanticism attempted to inject strong emotion into the bloody warfare of Classicism, valued folk art as authentic craft, got its rocks off on rocks, trees, and landscape. That’s all in here: a brooding, personal recollection of the world after ecological disaster, with an eye towards the beauty of that devastation; the folk art of weaving that Cat takes up, confusing her scientist parents, and on some level, herself; the near-Gothic near-Freudian setting of the family home, with the father in the basement and the android in the aerie. The opening section, with Cat catching fireflies in a jar, was almost too much for me – such vividly worn shorthand for wonder – but I promise this works long term.

Anyway, at some point, Clarke tips her hat to Kazuo Ishiguro and Maureen F. McHugh, and I smiled at the tip. We’re at the edge of science fiction here that thrills and bleeds with the literary wasteland of cool sentences and felt emotion, that understands that it’s not about whatever jibber jabber about the great Frankenstein’s Oedipal monster, but his daughter, growing up in a world that has transmuted from test tubes to in glass, but in glass in another language. There was a comment thread recently about this odd edge of genre, about how at a certain point science fiction sails over the edge into some more literary metafiction, and the literary metafiction sails right back, and they stand silhouetted on the water. Ishiguro’s clones, McHugh’s chimera, Atwood’s genetic engineering, Whitehead’s zombies, Boudinot’s Age of Fucked Up Shit – these creatures and stories all fall into this strange edge of the science fictional or the literary, one or the other or both in a quantum uncertainty.

But The Mad Scientist’s Daughteris also a romance. It is about love. It is about love in the most collapsingly personal way there is. God, and it’s so, so sad.

I didn’t understand why this novel had been published by Angry Robot, because, so far, what I’ve read from that publisher has been much more pulp sensible. (I am not using the term pulp as a brush-off or indicator of poor quality. Pulp doesn’t give a shit where it’s shelved.) But in writing this review, I get it now. The literary and the science fictional have been doing a dance since New Wave, running the ethics of technology met up with our humanity and the inherent surrealism of such a project, into a martial art of which part of the bookstore to shelve such a thing. Add in romance – the stories of love and the childhood bedroom, of uneasy marriages and disappointed parents – and the dance becomes something…maybe not new, but old, the way we who have lived through gigantic technological upheavals – and that is all of us – navigate the old, messy questions of consciousness and emotion in new mediated ways. This book takes a cell phone and calls that payphone on the corner. Who answers will break your heart. Or, in any case, it broke mine.

I got my copy from Netgalley and Angry Robot, in exchange for a fair review. Thank heavens.

My Boo

Recently the boy came home from school with a comped copy of The Story of Ferdinand. I somewhat vaguely seeing that book in school, but it hadn’t registered. Apparently, Ferdinand has this ridiculously long political history, coming out as it did just on the eve of the Spanish Civil War, and set in the Spanish bullfighting rings. Gandhi admired it; Stalin named a gun after it (in a whack totalitarian dick-move); Hemingway wrote The Faithful Bull in response to it; Hitler banned it. Lots of sturm und drang with that one, boy howdy. But because I’m a philistine, I didn’t know all that. I took one look at the author’s name, and began squealing, because Mr Monro Leaf wrote one of my most favoritest books that lived at Grandma Dory’s: BOO Who Used to be Scared of the Dark. I really thought Leaf was just some dude who had fallen down the memory hole, like this book has, and I’m just jazzed as heck to find he’s a bigger deal than I knew as a kid. 

Boo is a fearful child. He’s afraid of frogs, dogs, bugs, mice and the dark. Thank goodness he has a talking cat named Alexander who walks him through his outdoor fears, teaching him to be quiet and watchful around frogs and dogs, and to eat mice. Actually, Boo does’t eat any mice, but Alexander’s cattiness about mice makes them not-scary. The art is in this odd 50s style that feels like pin-up art, with the weird shiny round skin that people have in pin-ups, but I’m not saying this is sexualized or anything. It’s just a convergence of lithography stylins of the times. So, Alexander gets Boo over most of Boo’s fears, but the fear of the dark hangs on.

One night, Boo’s parents leave him alone in the house to “go to the neighbors” *wink wink* which I think is adorable and awesome. There’s no way most nervous middle class type parents would leave their six year old alone in the house at night, much as we would occasionally like to, but here it’s like, shrug, fend for yourself, kid. Boo wakes up in a panic, convinced there are all manner of wild animals – a gorilla, a snake, a lion – hiding in the darkness of his room. He screams; Alexander, who has been sleeping under the stove, wakes up so hard he cracks his head. 

This is the scene I died laughing about as a kid, paging back and forth through the Boo panic and the spit-take of Alexander’s reactions. Sure, this is crazy dopey, but it was so funny to me. Alexander runs a Socratic dialogue on Boo, showing him that the snake was a pile of clothes, and the gorilla was the light fixture, and all of the fear is dissolved into the bright light of clean up your room. Boo’s parents arrive and wonder what is going on with how awake and cleaning Boo is, and Alexander says the only thing he ever does when adults are present: meow. Hearts.

I was very frightened of the dark as a kid, because if I slept facing the alcove, monsters would certainly eat my face off. I had this whole thing about jumping onto the bed so that Oncler arms wouldn’t reach out and grab me. I can’t say this book ever helped with that, exactly, but it was a valiant effort, and one I thought was the highest form of physical comedy. (I know kids have no taste.) So, for me, certainly the whole literary pedigree of bulls smelling flowers is notable, but I’ve got my Boo as my first love, in true hipster fashion. Sure, I mean, that wine bar is great, but there’s this other one just around the corner that no one knows about….

titanic-deck

Deck Z: Unsinkable. Undead

SPOILER ALERT: THE BOAT SINKS.

I was talking to a friend about these monster history things. It seems there are two broad classes of them, the classic mash-up (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies et al.) and the secret monster history, like Deck Z: The Titanic: Unsinkable. Undead. It wasn’t the issues of state’s rights as a stalking horse for slavery, it was vampires that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was fighting. I’ve pretty well sworn off the former, because if I love the book enough to read it again with some hastily graphed monster fight scenes, then I love it enough to get all huffy and snobby about liberties taken with tone, character and interpretation. (Don’t even get me started about the shit show that is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls; ugh.) And if I haven’t read the classic in question, there’s no way I’m going to screw up my (possible, eventual) read of it due to some monster b.s. But secret histories? Even dopey, pulpy ones? Sure, why not. 

On the face of it, the Titanic disaster should marry well with the concept of zombies. There’s an Onion headline from Our Dumb Century that reads: World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-Berg. 

The Titanic disaster and its aftermath seem almost ridiculously fraught with issues of class warfare and technological hubris, a big floating microcosm which tore open and showed the ugly realities of class divisions. When you sort the dead by class, you see precisely how lethal it is to be poor. (See also, Hurricane Katrina, but in a much messier form, and adding in the always fun factor of race in America.) There’s all these great characters and tidbits from the sinking too – J. Bruce Ismay getting absolutely walloped by Congress in the weeks to come, the Unsinkable Molly Brown, the musicians playing their last concert on the deck, Guggenheim and other industrialists choosing the heroic but kinda silly-looking end in their smoking jackets, Capt. Smith going down with the ship, etc. etc. 

Zombies are often about class and colonization as well. Or at least, the Modern Granddaddy of Zombies, George Romero, has gone that way a good deal, especially in latter day stuff like “Land of the Dead”. There’s always more have-nots than haves, and they are hungry. They will storm your moated enclave once they realize you are in it. Their appetites may be unnatural, but, hey, that’s consumerist culture for you. Add in the fact that ships are cramped floating disease-breeders, and you have a built in reason why the zombie outbreak was contained – they’re all that the bottom of the sea – Titanic and Zombies seems like a really good idea. 

…which is all stuff I thought when I checked this out of the library last week, and is a good example of me letting my usual over-thinking set up unrealistic expectations for the pulp crap I read. Jesus H. Christ, Ceridwen, you are reading a book about zombies on the motherfucking Titanic. Chill the fuck out with your socio-metaphorical jibber-jabber. God. Suffice it to say, all the garbage I went on about about the metaphorics of zombies and the sinking of the Titanic was either non-existent or so lightly touched as to be just an artifact of the memeplexes of those things, and not, like, deliberate. Which is totally fine, and I’m not going to throw a big tantrum about not getting the things I unreasonably want. 

A somewhat mad scientist type, a one Dr Weiss is sent to Manchuria to deal with an outbreak of plague that has a new alarming strain. In an ethically problematic move, he collects the Toxin from the brain of an infected shaman woman, at which point he figures out that the German (?) government wants to use that Toxin as bioweapon against the Russians (?). I don’t really know, and I admit my history is spotty. There’s a big chase involving an Agent who is maybe a Russian Jew working for the Germans or something – seriously, I just wasn’t paying that close of attention. He ends up on the Titanic running to America to set up a new mad science lair and find a cure for the plague. The Agent steals the Toxin, and then predictable zombification of the lower decks ensues. There is also a gender-switching moppet who is best not spoken of. Moppets, man, I hates them. 

At which point the story becomes somewhat first person shooter, with Weiss, moppet, Capt Smith, and various redshirts leveling up through the decks of the ship. The secret history is a little stupid, in that it’s like, oh, but Ismay was still a skin-saving knob, but now it’s because of zombies and not just the regular imminent death he faced. Smith was giving confusing orders because he’d just battled his way through Deck Z for 24 hours, and was more concerned with keeping the zeds off the life-rafts than whatever other reasons he was being confusing. The zombie fighting stuff was passable, but not particularly interesting. At one point there’s a huge fan they have to stop and then crawl through, restarting it so that the zombies would all get chopped up, which seems like a great idea, but reads real flat. Plus, I just started laughing remembering the bit from Galaxy Quest about the stupid spinning fan that was in every episode.

My ears perked up when Weiss started droning on about plague, which I eventually figured out he meant Black Plague, and I have a somewhat unhealthy obsession with the Black Death. It ended up being one of those things that was annoying to me because I know too much about it, which I think is generally the death of this kind of fun. But, the incubation period! But, the survival rates! But, Jesus Christ, you are still reading a book about zombies on the Titanic; cut that out. My knowledge of the Titanic disaster is completely pop cultural, but I imagine to the knowledgeable, this would be annoying as hell. Like, I seriously googled if Captain Smith was ever in Afghanistan where he learned to be a swordmaster, and I’m thinking not. Shrug. I don’t care, but others may. 

Oh, and one zombie nit-pick. For whatever reason – and I have my pet theories, believe me – zombies are almost never called zombies in zombie fiction. Walkers, biters, skels, zed-heads, Zack, the infected, ragers, phone-crazies, etc. Given that the term zombie, referring to the contagious undead and NOT a semi-golem in the thrall of a sorcerer, pretty much originates with Romero in 1969, everyone jumping to call these plague victims zombies is a little bullshit. I feel like vampyr would be a more historical appropriate term, because in the early part of the 20th century, vamps were still the yucky contagious undead and not romance heroes yet. And because Weiss is (probably) German. The zombie was still an individual monster. 

Motherfucking TITANIC with ZOMBIES, Ceridwen. Shut your face. 

So there.

Dawn of the Truly Dreadful

I heard this story once from a friend of mine – I make no claims to its veracity – about a guy who ghost-wrote an autobiography for some minor Playboy bunny/starlet. It was a good gig for a struggling writer: he spent some weeks organizing the depressingly non-sordid details of a woman’s life that culminated in being publicly nekkid, banged out a manuscript (sorry, is this a pun?), and then was paid for the time and bother. The real bummer was that at roughly the same time, the book that he’d written – his real baby, the one he birthed laboriously with the usual screaming, love and bleeding that goes along with writing something important to you – was published to polite obscurity, and then vanished into a more complete obscurity. There were a few reviews, not negative ones, just indifferent, which has its own kind of soul-killing burn. Reviews of the nekkid memoir were good; reviewers were pleasantly surprised that Ms. Bunny seemed intelligent and funny. Maybe not needless to say, the intelligence and humor were solely the addition of the ghost-writer. “Huh,” everyone said. “I guess she’s not the complete idiot we took her for. Weird.” Cue writerly melt-down, drinking, etc. 

So now when I start in on some ad hominem attacks on Mr. Hockensmith’s book, which I plan to do, with feeling, please understand that I have some empathy towards that broken wreck of a writer he must be, gibbering as he takes long pulls on a bottle of Jack, editing his unfinished masterpiece that will vanish without a trace while idiot readers such as myself buy shit like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls. I am culpable in the vicious cycle that rewards publishers for pumping out garbage with good titles, great covers, and an originally clever idea that can be endlessly mimeographed into a purple-blue stew of endlessly derivative works. Android Karenina? Oh yes. Jane Slayre? Sign me the heck right up.

Steve Hockensmith is a robot. No, strike that, he’s a committee of robots commissioned by the marketing department of Quirk books for the purposes of penning (keyboarding? coding?) a quick and dirty cash-in to the unexpected success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I liked Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – what? It was fine, really, and my estimation of it has improved upon reading its prequel. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, for all its faults, didn’t betray its source materials. Seth Grahame-Smith, the author, clearly had read Austen’s work, and read it enough to stitch in some zombie mayhem in places where zombie mayhem might be appropriate. (Although, really, the title should have read Pride and Prejudice and Ninjas because the best scenes – like Lizzie and Lady Catherine de Bough having a ninja throw-down – centered on the martial arts. Still, whatever, he meant no disrespect. 

Mr Hockensmith has never read Pride and Prejudice. He rented the BBC adaption which he watched on mute while talking on the phone. I’m not impugning this activity; descriptions of doing this very thing made Bridget Jones’s Diarysuch an enjoyable read. I could, and at length, bitch about all of the violations and betrayals of Austen’s characters and historical facts in Dawn of the Dreadfuls, but Elizabeth has already beaten me to the punch. So, I’m here today, my friends, to bitch about the zombies. As some of you may be aware, I have a thing for zombies. Even though I should know better, I bolt down all kinds of trashy crap just because it has some undead lumbering around in it. Om nom nom, as the kids say. 

And even though I just went through this big apology for buying and reading trash fiction, I don’t really feel all that bad about it, and I think maybe writing good trash is harder than it looks. Certainly there’s no magic formula in the trash department, just like there isn’t for writing non-trash, but I think probably writers should at least seem like they give a crap. Writers should have the tiniest respect for the readers for whom the $10 they shell out in the store is the smallest price they pay – the big cost in in the time they invest. Even in my skimmiest of readings, I’m going to give a book 2 hours of my freaking life. I’m reading this trash because I like both Austen and zombies, and when he disrespects both of those things, he disrespects me as a reader. 

Mr. Hockensmith never figures out where his zombies are coming from, how they work, and most importantly, what they mean, which I’ll go off about later. So, okay, the dead rise, just randomly, because it’s warm? Fine. Then why is it also a contagion that can be passed on by a bite? And then why can you amputate the bitten limb and not zombify? So, one of those magical contagions that doesn’t enter the bloodstream? This is getting into not-fine territory for me. I don’t mind magic, really I don’t. Pretty much any explanation of zombies is going to resolve down into magic because of physics and reality. But for crying out loud, have a little sense of craft, man. 

But really, zombies are incidental, an excuse for a sex farce that includes things like Mrs. Bennet being mistaken by her daughters as a zombie when she goes scritch-scratching on the doors of Mr.Oscar Bennet’s room so he can impregnate her with a male heir. There are more nut shots in this book than zombie kills. Which brings me to my next complaint: there are many conventions of zombie fiction, and sex farce is usually a pretty low one on the list. There’s some good zombedies, but they, like the serious stuff, tend to rely on gross-out and gore over nut-shots and a bit with a dog. (This is why I rather liked Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter- the author there respected the gross.) I’m not saying zombie stuff should be sexless, but it’s less slap-and-tickle and more icky sex. 

So, fail on zombie mechanics and fail on zombie genre sensibilities. Now how about the zombie-as-metaphor? I don’t expect Mr. Hockensmith to devote his valuable time nurturing an obsession with the undead. I don’t expect him to write a treatise about how the zombies have their beginnings in colonial moral queasiness about the Caribbean slave-island nightmares they created and maintained – the original zombies were, after all, controlled by a Voodoo Priest, whose black skin, semi-Catholic idolatry, and ability to marshal people who lacked agency, autonomy and souls (read: slaves) struck to the heart of (British) colonialist fears. Slave uprising in Haiti, anyone? When Romero came along and skinned this rabbit good in Night of the Living Dead, he repurposes the Big Black Bad into the hero Ben, whose calmness, rationality, and authority allow him to survive the Marxist zombie uprising only to get cut down and hauled off by good ole boys. The revolution may be televised, but it’s an edited version. 

So okay, maybe Mansfield Park, with the Bertram family and their ominous-sounding “holdings” in Antigua, moral rot, and vapidity would have been a better fit for this kind of mash-up. Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park, is in some ways the perfect picture of a British Regency abolitionist – she’s extremely principled to the point of being a moralizing prig, but she’s developed those principles by being raised by a family who, it is coyly hinted, were slavers, who abused her almost casually, because their money, their lands, their status is built out of human cargo (which still stands as one of the most tortured euphemisms ever.) Still though, something could be said for the Bennets as a rising middle-class, mocked by the wealthy and titled for their familial relations who are *gasp* in trade, but hamstrung by both an entitlement system and their own spendthrift ways – Mr. Bennett – whose first name is anything but freaking Oscar, I might add – does say at some point in the real P & P that the girls wouldn’t need to fling themselves at any passing man if he’d been a little more careful with his finances. Grr, arg, brains. 

Anyway, what am I on about? Oh, yes, zombies. Zombies are about class, and race, and the hard economics that there are always more, and many more, have-nots than haves. Hockensmith seems to get this for maybe five seconds when he starts into a sub-plot where the Bennets lose face for training to fight the zombie hordes and then it gets them into hot water socially – maybe we’ll get into how the middle class often pretends to itself to have the problems of the leisure classes – you don’t think inheritance laws and “death taxes” have anything to do with you, do you? because they don’t – while surreptitiously working for a living. (Actually, there’s some cool stuff about law and the undead in Ian McDonald‘s Terminal Cafe.) But instead, some dumb plan to use some caricatured tail-chasing Baron to increase their standing is enacted, complete with more sex farce & nut shots. *possible spoiler if you still care* Cue Lady Catherine riding in on her white horse – I’m not making this up – and irritatedly saving Hertfordshire. Noblesse oblige & zombies, you can shove yourself up your own keyster. 

Fail, fail, fail. I want to be entirely clear: I’m not opposed to trash fiction. I was fully on board to eat some brains and gross-out and squeal. All the stuff about slave uprisings and economics that I went on about would have been a bonus, but I wasn’t hoping for that. Not everyone can be John Carpenter, tossing off garbage with biting social commentary. And apparently not everyone can be Seth Grahame-Smith either, and by everyone I mean Steve Hockensmith. I’ve been trying not too cuss to much in this review, but in sum, fuck this. 

Attachments: Chick-Lit for Nerds

The epistolary novel has been dead on arrival for a long time, maybe since even back in the day, but then my memory of anything by Samuel Richardson, force-read in intro classes in college, is hazy as hell. Even Austen, 200 years ago, rewrote “First Impressions”, an epistolary novel, into what would become Pride and Prejudice, and bless her heart for that. (Especially because I just recently read Austen’s Lady Susan, which was never re-written, and I could feel how the novel suffered from its epistolary format.) As a novel style, letter-writing hung on in Gothic longer, though I couldn’t exactly say why. Frankenstein, Dracula, and if my Internet search is to be believed, House of Leavesand The Historian are all epistolary, and slightly cheesy for it. It’s a weird way to have characters interact, maybe not a hundred years ago, but certainly now, and even a hundred years ago, letter-writing stories stripped out the narrator, who is the ace up the sleeve of any writer. Maybe. Don’t hold me to that statement.

Which is why it is fairly astonishing to find an epistolary novel written in this century (hell, even the last century) which works. Beth and Jennifer are both employees at a Midwestern newspaper, and friends; Lincoln is the man tasked with reading the emails flagged by whatever metric flags inter-office correspondence. In rom-com style, Lincoln reads the emails between these women, and becomes more and more smitten with the unmarried-but-attached Beth, while trying to cope with his life as it is: living with mom, hanging with his D&D crowd, being paid to be a voyeur. This is set right at the millennium shift, because even a decade later (now), such a scenario is unlikely. We all know what exact crap the work overlords are flagging or blocking, and get around such things using smartphones or off-work email. But I knew a sys-admin back in the day who had to read through a whole horrible romance with one of the company employees and a – for lack of a better phrase here – corporate spy from another company who was obviously using her for her corporate knowledge. My friend was so horrified and grossed out by reading this correspondence, which was both intimate and, knowing what he did about the other dude, totally Browning-esque in its damaged narrators. Which is a weird thing to say about real life, but art and life, etc.

Anyway, point being, I pretty much loved the ways Beth and Jennifer interacted in their little illicit emails. They are snappy are funny, maybe even snappier and funnier than is likely, but then I know and correspond with a lot of funny folk, so it really isn’t a stretch except for in narrative unity stylins, which is more than ok for me in a novel. Lincoln’s sections are not in epistolary form, which is good, and I generally appreciated the ways the other characters were, um, characterized. Like you do. He’s got this absolutely foul-mouthed friend who ends up being a rigid traditionalist in some ways, and I totally know that guy. I know the attachment parenting friend who plays D&D with the guys. I know a lot of these people. It’s possible I even am some of these people, but, like, less quick to the quip. That I feel that way at all is fantastic, given that I usually want to strangle rom-com people until their tongues loll out. 

Which is probably the thing: this sort of careful, almost deliberately casual, snappy Gen-X rom-com is only going to work for certain types of folk. I mean, duh, any book at all out there is going to have its readership and not another – that’s presumably why we’re out here at all chattering about the books we read, trying to marry a book with its best audience – but I felt that decidedly here. While I know that this term is trouble, and I don’t want to get into a big fight about it, I feel like this is chick-lit for nerds, and as a nerd who has read the occasional chick-lit, hoorah. I’m too lazy to check if Bridget Jones’s Diarycounts as a epistolary novel – diary-form being somewhat more solipsistic, blahity blah – but Attachmentshit the same part of my brain that enjoyed that, in that it’s girly and fluffy while being smart and lightly allusive, and I appreciate the heck out of that. 

I’m not going to say it’s perfect – the crisis and denouement are rushed and somewhat unbelievable, not crediting the real ethical problems of voyeuristic email-reading like maybe you should – but whatever. I’m still back on jazzed as hell that a novel that falls into the dreaded category of women’s fiction doesn’t fail the Bechdel test, and doesn’t fail it hard. Love is great and all, but I’m so happy to find female friends who talk in the way female friends do about all everything and whatever. If you’re in the likely readership for this book, you know what I mean.

Maus: My (Grand)father Bleeds History

Grandpa and I are standing by the wooden fence that holds my cousin’s horses. They aren’t skittish, but they stand just out of reach and flick their ears with watchfulness and flies. It’s full summer in Wisconsin, all grass and the scritch-scritch of insects in the grass. We talk about my cousin and her riding, about horses. I’ve always played city mouse to my country cousins, which is slightly fraught because my Grandpa is a man who has definite ideas about right living which center on small town life. He is second generation Danish from a small town in Iowa, and while he is fiercely progressive in much of his life philosophy, he retains a certain near-stoic near-asceticism which doesn’t mesh with my nuclear family’s outlook. I knew, even as a child, not to talk about certain things certain ways with Grandpa, how he would…maybe not misunderstand, but certainly not respect our city life. And our city life is the detached single-family suburban sprawl of Minneapolis, so city is certainly relative. 

I’m not sure how we start talking about this, but we get onto the subject of SSRIs – drugs like Prozac which affect brain chemistry, which were, even when this conversation occurred, being prescribed like candy. Grandpa was a doctor in the Navy during the War, and then attached to the nascent Marines, the raiders who would go out on lethal missions onto the scads of tiny islands between Australia and Japan. He doctored for both battles of Guam and Guadalcanal, in addition to an unremembered number of conflicts spraying out into the Pacific Rim. He never much talked about the War, least not to me anyway, but I was a child and there was no place for those stories. We knew there was something wrong when the stories started, stories that had always been stoppered, for better or for worse, by my Grandma’s almost harsh pragmatism. My Grandma runs family mythology like knitting, the way she knits anyway, the quickness of her hands in sharp contrast with how bent and gnarled they are by long-term arthritis. “Chris,” she would say when he started in a vein she didn’t approve of, and then quick deflections into topics more tractable. When he could or did ignore her machinations, which are at Sun Tzu levels of mastery, it was an indication of a deeper wrongness. Senior dementia was in the process of erasing him year by year until he was somewhere near six in the year his mother died, at the piano she taught him to play before she left him. It stops my heart still to think of how much pain he still carried from her loss, ninety years later on the eve of his passing. 

Here, I knew that the process was beginning, but not where it would take him. Next to the wooden stile that penned my cousin’s horses, we’re talking about Prozac, and about medicine and psychology and all of that. He’s been retired for a long time, over a decade, maybe more like two. I know he worked for years at a low income clinic after his retirement. Eventually he had to let his medical licence lapse because there is so much need out there that he kept getting sucked into the brutal hours of doctoring he had enjoyed his entire working life. I run the line about how pharmaceutics are not candy, and SSRIs are being used to treat grief like grief is unnatural. He agrees, in the sense that his view of psychology has always been based on will. He is a man of his generation, and getting over it is as getting over it does, and they did. Unless they didn’t. 

I sure wish we had had something like that during the War though.

I was getting ready to ship out again. I had already done a tour in the South Pacific. The ship was in the process of filling up with soldiers, many of whom had not seen action, who were just out of basic training with their squeaky boots. But there were a number of soldiers who had seen combat, piling back onto a ship that would bring them back to that. One man snapped. He was in full gear, with a 70 lb bag on his back. He saluted – ten hut! (Here Grandpa snaps a salute.) And then walked off the edge of the ship into the water. Soldiers scrambled, throwing off their own gear and diving in to water to fish him out. He was screaming uncontrollably. They hauled him off to the brig because that was the only place they could contain his breakdown. His screams reverberated through the metal bones of the ship until someone knocked him out with phenobarbital, but he’d just start screaming again when he came to. All those young men just out of basic listened to the ship they were boarding scream. We had no real way to treat the injuries in the mind. 

This isn’t the voice of my Grandpa. This is me trying to remember him as hard as I can, but it keeps slipping, and I am too much me to recreate him. If you could see me, I could recreate with my body which has some of his genetic tendencies the way he laughed and held his hands and hunched, but it wouldn’t be exactly right, two generations and a gender displaced from him, all those years displaced from the War, the years from this conversation, the years from his death. So much is gone. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck – I had never heard anything like this from him. I have the vague sense that there was someone else there, maybe a younger cousin, but it might have been me simply blown out of myself with shock. We would hear more war stories as the years wore on. My sister and I would collect them and show them to each other. Did you hear the one about the shelling on the beach? About running the wrong way during a retreat and almost ending up on the wrong side of the line? “Hey doc,” the rear guard said, “Where’re you going?” I wish, in a way, I’d tried more diligently to collect them, but I know it was an impossibility. He became so frail, and there’s no way Grandma would allow that line of questioning, even if I’d thought it was a good idea. 

Which is why Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds Historytowers as a narrative about familial and historical traumas, about the way we talk to our parents and grandparents about the fucked up shit they had to endure out there in the ugly mess of history. Art Spiegelman and I are not real similar people; our parents and grandparents did not have the same experiences; we are not from the same places. Spiegelman’s parents, Polish Jews, survived Auschwitz. Maus is the strange lapping recounting of that survival, his dad on a exercise bike or fighting with his second wife, Art fighting hard against his father’s disapproval and the memory of his mother’s suicide. The story keeps folding on itself, Art drawing panels which his father sees and then comments on, this secondary conversation through the oblique public performance that keeps collapsing the narratives, rendering it all into this wash of the meaningful and unmeaningful acts that make up our familiar conversations. It puts me on a wooden fence with my Grandpa who had begun his long, slow erasure of memory to his death, and beyond. It’s bananas. 

It’s so fiercely honest, not just the history, but the ways Art and his dad fail to connect at times. I loved my Grandpa, of course, but sometimes he was a difficult and rigid man, and the ways Spiegelman captures the affection, respect, and complete irritation with our loved ones was perfect for me. My Father Bleeds History is uncompleted, the elder Spiegelmans just committed to Auschwitz, and Art and his father just beginning to talk more openly about the comic Art is creating. Of course I’m reading the second part the second I get my hands on it. 

warm_bodies

Warm Bodies: Romeo and Juliet Across the Grave

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion is a chatty little first person narrative, welcoming the reader into the dreamy emo head-thoughts of a zombie called R. In terms of monster stories, the zombie is your least psychological of the beasts, tending to stand in for more large target ideas like consumerism or colonialism. So running a zombie narrator who waxes all Kerouac about how living with a bunch of Dead people who do nothing but ride escalators (hat tip Dawn of the Dead!) and form these little phony families based on nothing but a bunch of phony phoniness is pretty funny. I’m so alooooone even when I’m with (dead) people! I speak, but it all comes out in grunts! Nobody understands how I feeeeeeel! On one of his forays out to find living food, R eats the brains of a young man called Perry, who was in love with a girl called Julie. R, through the memories embedded in Perry’s delicious brain, learns the value of insta-love, semi-abducts Julie back to his love nest, does some eye-gazing with Julie, and generally behaves like your usual stalkerish romantic hero. Awww.

On the one hand, this is seriously funny and awesome. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again – so much so that people who know me are rightly sick of it – but vampires are high-functioning zombies. Which is why I have a pretty serious gross-out going with all the hot single ladies in UF/PNR having sex with all those cold, sparkly corpses. A romance between a zombie and a human, in theory anyway, lays bare how gross corpse-lovin’ is. But! Quipping aside, I get that vampires are different monsters, in that they are able to complete sentences and sparkle, so when Julie falls right for Mr Decomposing R, whose dialog consists mainly of ellipses and body consists of gray flesh that doesn’t have an eight pack, I’m like, hahaha, good one. 

However, here’s my problem: I’m getting too old for this shit. Because, absolutely, obviously, and totally, this is a version of Romeo and Juliet, and I am a bitter, wasted crank when it comes to R&J adaptions. I believe fully, in the recesses of my black heart, that Romeo and Juliet are nitwits who must die to prove the situation is serious. They are a couple of bobble-heads kept apart only by familial feuding, because otherwise they are perfectly matched to one another; they are not the Socs vs. the Greasers at freaking all. They are the same race, same class, from the same town; they have similar ninny friends with the same ninny interests. There’s no real reason they’re kept apart, like, for example, R(omeo) eating Paris’s Perry’s brains and the brains of everyone Julie(t) has ever loved, including her mother. Romeo and Juliet are hormone-addled dorks who maybe don’t deserve to die, but it sure is nice when it happens, everyone all single-tear about how maybe forbidding the fruit made it a billion more times sexy to idiots. Romeo and Juliet aren’t admirable or commendable; they simply follow their groins to the logical conclusion, which is live fast, die young, leave a pretty corpse. Bongos, bongos, youth culture, etc. Because if they didn’t die, they would have sold out just like the rest of us assholes riding our phony elevators. Hey, nonny nonny. 

Mr Marion does a commendable job trying to make the Living and the Dead the same kind of dead-at-heart automata – you’re not living, you’re just not-dying! – but I’m just not buying it. Especially because he never really owns R’s zombie nature. R is forgiven for Paris’s Perry’s brain-eating something like 50 times in the novel, as early as page 50-ish, and I’m like, what? R is looking a lot like a certain kind of vegetarian vampire I can think of – a high-functioning wanker who is handed all kinds of pussy just for crying over some Sinatra or whatever. Which, speaking of Edward Cullen (I was), when you get right down to it, Jacob would be a much better Juliet to his Romeo, in that they are both from feuding clans with similar magical powers, the same hierarchical families. Only the class difference is a thing, and maybe the race if you consider Jacob to be really Native American and not some kind of long extended hysterical imagining of Native America. Which I don’t, or do, depending on whether my tortured grammar here makes him anything but a war-bonnet on a German-American kid with killer abs. I’m reasonable sure there’s scads of instances of Edward/Jacob slash fiction which corrects this problem – though I refuse to google – but I just get a little big sigh when I see yet another Manic Pixie Dream Girl redeem some brain-eating douchebag because she’s had a little tragedy mixed with a little art school. Awww. Bongos bongos. Hey ninny ninny. 

So, now that I’ve gone into full-on freak out mode, I would like to pull back from the ledge and note that I had a good time reading this. Even though I rolled my eyes a lot – the R&J thing is one thing, but the whole thing about how parents and culture is Square, Man, and They’re Keeping Us Down – the prose hurtles along in its first person way. The opening is stronger than the ending, for me anyway. I liked the whole wordless interchange and difficulty of communication of the zombie community, making their silent and decontextual way through the detritus of civilization. I pretty much live for that stuff in fiction. But later, blah, stop making out with corpses. But I’m an old, bony, mortgage-having square who would head-shoot the crap out of some animated corpse my daughter brought home. I’m not even going to apologize for that. 

And this is just more of an observation, but this was the n-th zombie novel I’ve read that treated the nomenclature for zombies like racially charged terms: I can’t believe she called me a corpse! On one hand I get it – zombies do have their roots in slave-uprising panic narratives, after all – but on the other hand, reads real cheap when you’re dealing with sexy romantic hero zombies and their manic pixie dream ladies. I’m all oppressed and stuff! Of course you are. :::pat pat pat::: Oh, and the edition I read had British spelling, which confused me no end. I had to google to make sure I wasn’t insane, and this was located somewhere in the contiguous 48. It is. 

So, fun little bit of brains and mayhem, but someone less bitter and cranky, with fewer readerly hang-ups, will probably like this more. Some of us have to work to pay the mortgage, you little shits, and it can’t be all eye-gazing and magical cures for zombiism. 


I got my copy from NetGalley.