Bennett Sims: A Questionable Shape (Two Dollar Radio, 2013)

Image by WORD Bookstore, Brooklyn/Two Dollar Radio

Image by WORD Bookstore, Brooklyn/Two Dollar Radio

What we know about the undead so far is this: they return to the familiar. They’ll wander to nostalgically charged sites from their former lives, and you can somewhat reliably find an undead in the same places you might have found it beforehand. Its house, its office, the bikeways circling the lake, the bar. ‘Haunts.’ …*Could it be that each time a place leaves a powerful impression on us, it deposits into our unconscious these mineral flecks of nostalgic energy?

How the hell am I supposed to intelligently write about a zombie novel that references Wittgenstein, Kobayashi Issa, Thomas Hardy, Hans Holbein the Younger, and Alfred Hitchcock (not to mention Hamlet via the title)? A book that’s dedicated to David Foster Wallace and borrows from Nicholas Baker? That sees analogues to the undead in, among other things, chess, art, footnotes, and the green power light on a speaker? That wrings more out of the flashing “Walk/Don’t Walk” street signs than some books get out of a multigenerational war saga? A zombie novel where subjects like memory, perception, reality, being, and knowing are far more prevalent than actual zombies?

Screw “intelligently;” I’ll have to settle for “enthusiastically.” An analogue to the undead, perhaps? It’s infected my brain, and now I want to infect yours?

Since the outbreak, I have often reflected that the footnote is the typographic mark most emblematic of undeath. By opening up a sub adjacent space on the page, the footnote digs a grave in the text, an underworld in the text. The words that are banished there are like thoughts that the text has repressed, pushed down into its unconscious. But they go on disturbing it from beneath, such that if the text were ever infected, they are the words that would guide it. Footnotes are a text’s phantom feet. [Page 16, in a footnote, for god’s sake]

I didn’t expect to read this book. I loved Sims’ “House-Sitting” from the Summer 2012 issue of Tin House – “seriously fine, seriously literary, psychological horror,” I called it – and I knew back then he had a book coming out, but it isn’t the kind of book that’s likely to wind up in the Maine library system (though it should, but small presses get short shrift when funds are scarce), and given the cutbacks to my own book budget, I wasn’t willing to take the risk for a zombie novel, no matter how great the first story or how promising the reviews.

Then two things happened. First, I read the Manuel Gonzales collection The Tiny Wife, and discovered the immense possibilities of zombie stories – and werewolf stories, and unicorn stories – in the hands of a certain kind of writer. Then, in a stroke of luck, I noticed a tweet about Roxane Gay giving away books (thank you, Roxane) early enough to get in on it. This was one of the books offered, and I jumped. I wasn’t disappointed.

I seem to be using phrases like “the plot is simple” over and over again lately. Maybe that’s something to tuck away in a back pocket: a complex book doesn’t need a complex plot. And this is a complex book, it’s just that it’s ideas-complex, not story-complex. Each day makes up a section, comprised of unnumbered chapters. It’s all very linear, with the exception of a couple of seriously high-voltage flashbacks. And: there are very few zombies. In fact, technically there are none: Michael makes a distinction between the undead he is dealing with (officially known as “the infected” in a stroke of civic political correctness) and zombies, “those hypothetical thought-experimental monsters from the mind-body philosophy.”

Michael Vermaelen, the first-person protagonist, and his friend Matt Mazoch spend a week looking for Matt’s father, who went missing a few weeks ago; he’s presumed caught in the months-old undead epidemic. While there was panic and chaos at first, life has settled into a remarkably calm “new normal” now that the epidemic has been bureaucratized. There’s nothing like a government agency to make even zombies seem routine.

The undead return to places with some emotional content, leading to interesting speculation about the nature of memory and the possibilities that occur when we try to figure each other out. Consider your closest loved one: spouse, parent, child, friend, sibling. Now consider: what place is most emotionally significant to him or her? How would you feel if you discovered, upon her death, that it was a place, a memory, that did not include you?

Michael was a philosophy major, his girlfriend Rachel studied art history, and Matt’s from the literature department, so between those three threads, plus a smattering of anthropology and science, we get a full workout as Michael takes a tour of the human soul. And if you really want zombies, insist on zombies in your zombie novel, Michael’s recollection of his first view of an undead is astonishing. It features the winds and leaves and shadows more than rotting flesh, though:

Above me a breeze passed through the oak trees’ leaves, and I watched as a current of rustle traveled up the block, live oak by live oak, in a line of thrashing branches. Eventually they reached the infected’s far white figure, overtaking him. As the branches between us swayed, their shadows swished atop the intervening concrete, and I could see that all of the street leading up to the infected was shaded: the pavement roiled with movement – with black turmoil – as if being buckled by an earthquake of shadows. Down at my feet some of its tremors swished over my shoes. And raising my eyes from my feet, moving my eyes slowly along the length of the street, one patch of thrashing shadow as a time, I could almost believe that I was following just a single tremor in motion, one black seism traveling up the block. This shockwave, beginning at my shoes, seemed to ripple outward, breaking over itself in crests and troughs until it broke over the feet of the infected. Is quite shape stayed in place, being lapped at by the blackness. I lifted my arm at him, as if in a wave, and actually waved both arms. He didn’t respond, and I let my arms drop to my sides. The tree shadows continued cascading toward him, in flurries of movement that threw his motionlessness into relief.

I’m a big fan of interiority; it’s a good thing, because Michael lives in his head, constantly questioning. Matt, in contrast, lives in his body and in action; he knows exactly what the undead think and feel (nothing) and wants to exterminate them, and Rachel, heart-focused, reacts to them compassionately as victims of an illness. It’s vaguely Freudian, with Matt as the id, Rachel the superego, and Michael as the ego trying to keep everyone happy, while figuring out the nature of undeath.

Or rather, a range of metaphors. I started writing “AGAIN!” in the margins as I encountered instance after instance of his discovery that “oh, yes, undeath is really like correlative conjunctions,” followed a few pages later by “it’s also like Vertigo” only to continue into “and it’s like the letters spelling out ‘Baton Rouge’ on the levee, too”:

Every time that a storm’s white spume gushes from the letters’ downspouts, it looks as if the words are hemorrhaging meaning… For isn’t this the effect that the infection has on language? Whenever the undead bite people, their victim’s speech is soon reduced to moaning….it’s even almost tempting to think of the epidemic, of the undead in general, as having been sent to serve just that purpose, like some tidal wave of aphasia returning speechlessness to the earth: first to puncture words, installing sluiceways in the language, then to wash through them with the white spume of that moaning, rinsing the alluvia from their letters.

There’s some seriously fine, seriously literary satiric humor as well, particularly via an infection-control pamphlet issued by the Louisiana CDC titled “FIGHT THE BITE” that includes advice on what to do if confronted (“A Knock to the Head Will Stop ‘Em Dead”). Michael ponders the very illustrations thereof, the emotional blankness: “Like the passengers in aircraft manuals, who seem to suffer plane crashes apathetically, reaching for oxygen masks as calmly as for a ceiling light’s dangle-chain, the characters in FIGHT THE BITE are curiously underwhelmed by the epidemic….. portraying a world in which the imperiled meet death like stolid pod people.” The drawings of the undead are distinguished by the absence of pupils. This kind of detail doesn’t grow on trees; it takes serious work to come up with this stuff. I wonder if Sims has a mock-up of the pamphlet sitting around somewhere.

Then there are the defamiliarization exercises: Husbands practice not recognizing wives, mothers their children, “the better to damp down recognition when they see each other undead.…” The idea is to practice seeing your loved ones as undead, as infected, as sources of contagion; as threats. That way, if they should be infected, “A Knock to the Head Will Stop ‘Em Dead” – though it’s illegal to “kill” an undead except in “close-quartered combat.” I mildly regret this isn’t explored more: either Sims’ Louisiana has no “Stand Your Ground” law, as the real Louisiana does, or it was suspended for the undead, who “have the same citizen status and legal rights as, say, coma patients or the mentally ill.”

Michael spends a good part of Wednesday trying to convince Rachel to practice these defamiliarization techniques – to get used to being strangers at will. Deliberate estrangement. She’s reluctant. “It’s hateful,” she says. She doesn’t know the half of it; Michael has already considered his options:

‘What would I have to do,’ I would ask myself, ‘if this creature, asleep on my chest, woke and was monstrous?’ There was never really any question: I would have to throw the comforter, verdant and spring-patterned, over her head, not only to keep her from biting me but also to keep me from seeing her face; then I would have to beat her to death with the baseball bat that we stow under the bed. The trick, I thought, was to be beating on a mound beneath the covers. To be beating some soft writhing green thing, rather than Rachel, nude and recognizable. And to drag her body, still bundled in its blankets, out to the street without ever once actually looking at her face, which would have to be as forbidden to me as Eurydice’s, or Medusa’s. I didn’t like to think about it.

How do you think that might affect your marriage? Michael meditates at length on the effect this has on his relationship with Rachel. Early in the epidemic, when he was at his most paranoid, he had some trouble hugging a woman who sometimes felt like a rabid dog. But he’s better now.

I lost a little steam around Thursday (the chapter, not the day), but the first three chapters more than made up for it and gave enough momentum to keep the book engaging until the end, where Michael faces a decision. All in all, it’s a pretty anticlimactic ending, but the read was so good, I didn’t care.

The description of going with Rachel to check her father’s grave – early in the epidemic, when no one knew exactly what was happening, she was afraid he might have reanimated in his coffin – has a heartfelt gentle intimacy about it despite the hyperanalysis. Their day at Tunica likewise has an emotional fervor to it, though Michael’s account of it uses little in the way of emotive language. It’s a neat trick. I suppose I could be bringing the emotional content in myself, but I think instead it’s just a very talented writer evoking emotion in a different way.

Take the story of her father’s death. When she narrates this to me in bed at night, what she’s doing is putting it into play in our relationship… The reason she’s even sharing that memory to begin with is that she wants me, as her lover, to know that about her. It’s a biographical experience she considers so fundamental to her sense of self that I couldn’t properly love her – couldn’t know her as my beloved – without first having incorporated it into my own personal sense of who she is. The subtext of any memory that the lover shares is, ‘I want you, my lover, to know this about me, because this is the facet of myself I want you to love. When you say, “I love you,” mean by “you” the subject of this memory.’

In various interviews (and I was relieved to find them; when I read “House-Sitting,” I couldn’t find anything about him online other than the briefest bios), Sims names his influences. In his interview with Shane Jones of HTMLGiant he explains the footnotes that provide so much of the novel are not an homage to David Foster Wallace as I’d assumed (Sims studied with him; he tells Two Dollar Radio it’s hard to talk about) but to Nicholas Baker’s The Mezzanine (Late addendum: I wonder if he’s read the Millions article Aphrodisiacal Footnotes…; I myself feel the need to correct Dr. McWilliams’ opening sentence, as Bennett Sims also writes footnotes very much worth reading). He wrote his college thesis on zombies, including the aspect of “social death” which he talks about at some length with Gameological. This is why it’s more than a horror novel; there’s serious thought in this.

If I could ask Bennett Sims some questions (besides if he has a draft of FIGHT THE BITE on his computer; someone’s got to design one), I’d ask the silly stuff that isn’t included in those (excellent and highly recommended) interviews. I’d want to know about the way practical information is, or isn’t, revealed. We don’t know Michael’s name, for instance, until well into the book; for a while I thought he’d go unnamed throughout. Am I the only one who wants to know a narrator’s name? There’s no lack of clarity, since there are only three characters to keep track of (four, if you count the omnipresent idea of the missing Mr. Mazoch). But once Rachel calls him “Michael,” it’s as if the floodgates open; his name is mentioned over and over, and we eventually even get a last name. Why the delay? Is it related to Rachel noticing he only uses her name when he’s angry? Is it coincidence, or a deliberate choice, to tease the reader a little with the same unknowing state Michael’s in vis a vis the undead?

I’d also want to know if there are deliberate nods to the early days of AIDS, the ground covered by Shilts’ And the Band Played On (I remember the jokes, the nasty comments… and more than anything else, the paranoia) in some sections, and to Katrina in others. The hurricane is mentioned (and mass escapes of the undead from quarantines are called “spills” for another eerie evocation of reality), and the upcoming hurricane season is a source of tension throughout the book, but it strikes me that the confusion, incompetence, the bad information, the hysterical atmosphere dying down to a new normal that’s anything but normal, mirrors history, if 2005 can be called history.

If things were going well and I wasn’t wearing on his patience, I might get into silly stuff like whether these people had jobs. Obviously with a zombie apocalypse going on, most businesses are closed (though Michael goes out for milk and he and Matt stop for lunch at a diner, and public safety is in full swing), but if there’s a reference to the jobs they held before this started, I missed it. Even if they’re on the university on summer hiatus, I’d think they’d mention co-workers, bosses, or at least money, in passing. I suppose in a zombie novel that should be the least of my worries, but other than the undead, it’s quite realistic, right down to the configuration of the barges on the Mississippi acting as temporary quarantine overflows.

Mazoch likes to appose Robert Hass’s version of the famous Issa haiku (‘In this world/we walk on the roof of hell/gazing at flowers’) to something that we heard a preacher say on talk radio one morning (‘When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth’): the dead and the living are sharing roofspace now, and it’s nothing like so simple as it once was to take a walk.

I’m amazed at how much a couple hundred pages can contain, the places it can take me – and the things I can learn (I’m now obsessed with anamorphic art – I knew about it beforehand, I just never knew what it was called and often mistakenly referred to it as trompe l’oeil; I stand corrected).

Sims joins Seth Fried and Manuel Gonzales on my “magnificently weird” list. It’s a great list, getting better all the time.

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6 responses to “Bennett Sims: A Questionable Shape (Two Dollar Radio, 2013)

  1. Wow, this is an amazing post and sounds like a book I would really like. Though I’m a bit leery of the last point about the characters not having jobs or realistic personal backstory. That would annoy me. But the combination of brainy and genre is one of my favorite things to read and this really sounds spectacular. Thanks.

    • Hi Valerie – I didn’t even notice the fuzzy jobs thing while I was reading, it was when I was working on the post it occurred to me I didn’t know what they “did” – I’d kind of assumed Michael at least was at the university. It’s quite possible I missed it, with all the cool stuff to look at.

  2. Pingback: Bennett Sims: “House-Sitting” from Tin House, Summer 2012 | A Just Recompense

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