Assassins versus zombies

The perils of writing a literary novel about zombies
February 22, 2012
Wild Thingby Josh Bazell (Reagan Arthur Books, $25.99)Zone Oneby Colson Whitehead (Harvill Secker, £14.99)

It’s a truism that some of the world’s best chefs opt for simple fare when eating at home. Joël Robuchon likes plain spaghetti with cheese, London’s Matthew Foxon opts for eggs on toast, and international gastronome Jean-Georges Vongerichten craves roast chicken. Unfussy dishes, all, and no doubt exquisitely executed. So what is the reader’s equivalent of perfectly prepared comfort food?

Every so often, a book comes along to remind us. This time it’s a novel called Wild Thing by the American writer Josh Bazell. The author’s 2009 debut, Beat the Reaper, was a buoyant crime story written with panache and zero pretension—and it got far less attention than it deserved.

The problem with Beat the Reaper was not one of quality, but taxonomy. Audiences couldn’t decide whether it was a piece of “genre fiction”—that vague term for genres such as crime, science fiction or fantasy—or a “literary novel.” As a result, few readers from either fanbase latched on to it. Too bad. Bazell—a young writer who is also a doctor—had crafted a terrific story about an assassin-turned-medical intern forced to escape an old mob vendetta. It was an old-fashioned page-turner, but punchy and free of clichés.

Wild Thing is a continuation of the unseemly assassin’s escapades, and it has everything: water monsters, charlatans, quacks, conspiracy, murder, lusty palaeontologists. The language is fresh and the pace quick. Bazell is that rarest of novelists: a talented writer seemingly unconflicted about situating a bang-up novel within the conventions of an established “non-literary” genre. And why not? Done right, such novels are a joy to read.

Done shoddily, they are quite the opposite. Late last year came Zone One, a zombie novel by Colson Whitehead. The book sounded like a sure winner. No writer seemed better placed than the much-lauded Whitehead to combine zombie novel conventions—a ripping yarn, cannibalism, walking dead—with impeccably crafted sentences. “Literary” novelists have long tinkered with genre structures (see Jane Austen’s gothic novel, Northanger Abbey), and recent science fiction experiments from Whitehead’s contemporaries Gary Shteyngart, Jennifer Egan and Tom Perrotta had stoked my eagerness to read Zone One.

But when literary authors stride into genre territory, the resulting works are often described as “the thinking man’s” version of something else. This phrase condescendingly invokes a non-thinking straw man. But even a non-thinker wouldn’t suffer by skipping Zone One. The book was a tedious allegory splashed in gore, slowed by endless descriptions of dreams and the weather. “Zombies are just rhetorical props,” Whitehead said in an interview. Fine, but rhetorical props belong in essays and appellate arguments, not in novels. Reading Zone One, I had the sense that Whitehead was slumming, and there’s nothing more loathsome for a reader than the sense of being patronised.

Whitehead is not alone in his blunder. Margaret Atwood has written science fiction but refuses to accept the genre label; Rick Moody’s foray into dystopia with 2010’s The Four Fingers of Death was a 736-page spree of tiresome writerly tics. Finely wrought page-turners are easier wished for than found. There is nothing wrong with labelling novels as “literary” or “genre”; the problem is when authors mistake a categorical distinction for a moral one. Most readers (and some writers, like Josh Bazell) don’t seem to have this hang-up. They are better off for it.