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Keeping a Close Watch on the Zombie Wars of Chicago

The Making of Zombie Wars
By Aleksandar Hemon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages, $26

Aleksandar Hemon’s new novel “The Making of Zombie Wars” is preceded by two epigraphs. The first, attributed to the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, reads, “The mind can neither imagine anything, nor recollect past things, except while the body endures.” The second is credited to former President George W. Bush: “When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world and you knew exactly who they were. It was us versus them and it was clear who was them. Today, we are not so sure who the they are, but we know they are there.”

The Spinoza quote appears throughout: It echoes like a bass line, a drum beat, a backbone rhythm. But it is the Bush quote that, though it is never heard again, articulates the novel’s anxieties about a world of ineffable but potent threats and the messy, destructive, spectacularly disastrous ways we attempt to mitigate and negotiate our fears.

Set in March 2003, in the early, heady days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, “Zombie Wars” is, on the surface, the story of one Joshua Levin, schlemiel-y ESL teacher, schlimazel-y would-be screenwriter. He is the sort of guy who imagines himself to be nice but unlucky: He is self-aware enough to know he’s a loser, but not so aware as to take responsibility for that status. “Your life is a warm blanket,” another character sneers at Joshua, and that’s one way of putting it. Another might be to say that Joshua is thirsty and feels like the world owes him a Coke.

That Coke is frustratingly nowhere to be found. When we first meet him, Joshua is half-heartedly working on “Script Idea #12,” the story of DJ Spinoza, “a misfit no one understands.” The young DJ Spinoza’s dream is to DJ his prom night “and blow all those assholes away,” but first he must make amends for his disastrously “radical DJ-ing” at the party of Rise, “the girl he aims to hook up with.” (Title: “Spinning Out of Control.” Naturally.) Ensconced at a Chicago coffee shop — title: “Coffee Shoppe” — Joshua ponders Spinoza’s next steps, an endeavor delayed by his listless wondering regarding the differences between “shop” and “shoppe” (prompting that age-old query, “Did the Wife of Bath drink soy milk chai lattes?”) and his recognition that “writing is nothing if not carrying the hopeless, backbreaking burden of decisions devoid of consequences.”

“The Making of Zombie Wars” chronicles what happens when decisions ostensibly acquire consequences. In Joshua’s life, this comes to pass when, despite having a too-good-for-him girlfriend, he succumbs to the temptation of one of his students, a sadly sultry Bosnian woman named Ana. Ana is married to Esko, who may have gone a “little crazy in war,” definitely drinks a lot, and, as if to quickly signal all this and more, has a barbed wire tattooed around his bulging neck. Needless to say, Esko does not take kindly to learning of his wife’s indiscretion with her ESL teacher. Complications, as one of Joshua’s script synopses might conclude, ensue.

The exact nature of said complications does not much matter. There is violence and there is sex, much of both faintly unbelievable and somewhat gratuitous. There is a subplot involving Joshua’s landlord, a veteran of the first Iraq war, who may have, like Esko, gone a little crazy, and a subplot involving Joshua’s divorced parents and divorcing sister. There are a lot of script ideas and one semi-realized screenplay, the rather trite “Zombie Wars.”

The script’s predictability is meant to stand as a counterpoint to the chaos that is Joshua’s life (and the mess that is real war), though it may also be a key reason why we may not be especially compelled to care about Joshua and his disasters. Being less than an upstanding citizen is no great crime, but being a middling writer of genre cinema just might be. And yet the mediocrity of Joshua’s writing is not without its purpose: Setting off Hemon’s own far more accomplished prose, “Zombie Wars” also sets up the real interest of the novel.

Hemon famously arrived in Chicago shortly before the outbreak of the war in his native Bosnia — former title: Yugoslavia — becoming an erudite observer of the malignancies afflicting his home. The urgency of his writing came and comes from the fact that he knows simultaneously more and less than he ought to, that he articulates things he has not necessarily experienced through the things he has deeply felt. The key tension of the work is between that knowledge and that ignorance, its main struggle the sense that writing is always already inadequate and yet always somehow necessary. At a New Yorker panel a few years ago, Hemon said that he writes when he finds himself unable to not write, when the force, the pressure, of his thoughts and anxieties and fantasies on a subject becomes unbearable. Joshua’s “Zombie Wars” grapples with something of this sort: How does one accept responsibility and do so responsibly? How do Americans, comfortable and complacent, make sense of the geopolitical disasters swirling around them, some perpetuated in their names? How do we keep from turning into either the zombies or the zombie hunters?

Neither Joshua’s script nor Hemon’s novel necessarily offers answers. But both suggest that we ought to endure by remembering and imagining and accepting that, in the certainty of never knowing who the enemies are, we must face ourselves with as much honesty as we can muster.

Yevgeniya Traps reviews books frequently for the Forward.

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