By Amy Danzer
Aleksandar Hemon brings the funny in his new novel, “The Making of Zombie Wars.”
After giving us “The Question of Bruno,” “Nowhere Man,” “The Lazarus Project,” “Love and Obstacles,” and “The Book of My Lives,” he now presents us with a comical story that centers around born-and-raised Highland Parker, Joshua Levin, an ESL instructor who compulsively comes up with script ideas that never hold much promise, with the exception of “Zombie Wars.” According to just about everyone in the novel, his girlfriend is too good for him; his relationship with his family is pretty average-if-a-bit-strained; and his army vet landlord, Stagger, has an absolute lack of appreciation for boundaries. Everything in Joshua’s world moves mediocrely along until he plays a dangerous game of seduction with his Bosnian student, Ana who is married to a Bosnian war vet. Thereafter, misadventures ensue like a Coen Brothers film. Though its pace is swift and the mishaps ridiculous, there’s no shortage of poignant subtext. Hemon recently entertained some questions I had for him about his new novel at his shared writers’ space on the North Side of Chicago.
Though you frequently weave humor throughout your work, you tend to lead with a certain seriousness. However, “The Making of Zombie Wars” seems to lead with levity and allude to more serious issues. Is there anything in particular that prompted this shift?
I just wanted to write a funny book. Funny as its organizing principle. I wanted to do something differently. I also made the decision because I had written a film script with a friend, a Bosnian film director Jasmila Žbanic, [who] was a little sick of the tag she had acquired in her career. By virtue of being Bosnian or Eastern European, she felt she was forever sentenced to the realm of tragic and hard-to-comprehend genocide, rape, etc. So we wanted both to break out of such a mode systematically and we wrote “Love Island” [the film] as a comedy, [where] in an Aristotelian sense, in the end, everyone is together and happy. There aren’t many pieces of narrative art in that part of the world that end that way. And so I liked that. Also, when I found myself at a screening of “Love Island” with 2,000 strangers, I was terrified of the possibility they wouldn’t find it funny. That horror I’d never experienced before because the risk of comedy is that if it’s not funny, it’s dead; there is no afterlife. If it’s not funny now, it will never be. No one laughs at the joke ten days after. This immediacy of contact, the intensity I like, the risk of it all.
You make quite a bit of reference to war in “Zombie Wars”: the US conflict in Iraq and the war in Sarajevo. News outlets regularly feed us narratives about such conflicts, as do radio, TV and film industries. Do you feel an obligation as a writer to critique these stories, support them, or present new ones? What’s your relationship to these stories?
I don’t really feel any kind of obligation as a writer in that regard. I was, however, terribly upset with the invasion of Iraq and still am, and everything that came after, and during the invasion. And [upset] not just [with] what the government, Bush’s regime, and our fine troops did in Abu Ghraib, or what they are doing still in Guantanamo Bay—all this outrages me consistently, constantly—but rather the mass complicity. To some extent, we all took part in it. To me as a writer, not as a moralist, [it is] interesting how someone who is not bloodthirsty, not a raving patriot, [and] doesn’t want to shoot Arabs in the head, how does [someone like Joshua] become complicit in the entire thing? What kind of madness do we need to enter to have it be just something that is a barely audible noise in the background—the war, the invasion, the failure of the project to be a super power that determines the outcome of human history. I would have expected the whole of American narratives to be reshaped after the fiasco of Iraq. But somehow, magically, fantastically, narratively, interestingly, it reshaped itself, despite the self-evident reality, to continue the narrative of American greatness. The Iraq project is a fiasco, however you bend it. No one was held responsible for the disaster, legally, morally, ethically, aesthetically and yet, somehow, it still provides opportunity for some kind of American self-congratulation. That is interesting to me, the ways that narratives work—how a narrative reshape(s) itself to suit us individually. Joshua is constantly coming up with narratives that will work for him, narratives in which he will cast himself, and he constantly fails at that because he never finishes any scripts until the fiasco in his real life, whereupon he shapes a narrative in which he projects himself into a hero.
The main character, Joshua Levin, seems very much an embodiment of what Friedrich Nietzsche identifies as The Last Man, the culmination of bourgeois striving. Was that the goal or something you were thinking about?
I like Nietzsche. Whenever Nietzsche comes up, it makes me look smarter [laughter]. The Last Man, I like… [but] one of the things I wanted Joshua to do was move from a kind of Spinozan rationality, of course, in a comic way, to a kind of desperate daze where he addresses God to help him. Joshua—in a self-indulgent way—appropriates both Spinoza and the God of the Bible to serve his purposes. I’ve always found it funny that there are people who pray to the Lord to help them balance their checkbooks. As if the Lord who created the infinite number of universes, can take a minute or two off to help them conduct a basic mathematical operation. And this notion of the universe, including God, who somehow centers around our needs, is especially bourgeois and I’d have to say particularly American. So I wanted to throw Joshua into that.
As for Nietzsche, I’ve read Nietzsche and know where he is coming from and what he thinks, but I really didn’t engage with Nietzsche in writing this book. Might be one of those things that just lingered in the back of my mind and then showed up, and surfaced. But I did not employ him systematically the way I deployed Spinoza, where I looked for quotes and reread “Ethics” and found the ones that Joshua could use and then adjust them. So Spinoza was employed, whereas Nietzsche popped up.
A number of allusions are made to voids—emptiness, lack of feeling, “no regret, no loss”—and characters in “Zombie Wars” seem to try to fill those voids, benumb or distract themselves with booze, drugs, sex, violence, etc. The void also seems to play into the zombie narrative. I’m wondering what the impetus is behind the void and how does it lend itself to the zombie motif, if it does?
The ultimate void—death—looms somewhere on the horizon, constantly, in various forms and ways, from Joshua’s father to the undead who are dead but still have agency. A way to fill the void is storytelling. Joshua constantly generates unfinished narratives, but it’s also what human narration in general is about. It’s the “One Thousand and One Nights” template. By telling a story, you prolong life and postpone death. For as long as we are telling stories about our life, we are alive. And for as long as we can tell stories about other peoples’ lives who are dead, they are not vanished. They have not been fully swallowed by the void. So in some ways, we always tell stories against the void, or at least to ease the fear of the void. But I don’t think that Joshua is anywhere near being aware of that.
When Botoxed screenwriting agent Billy Kuperman tells Joshua “They’re shooting shitloads of TV in Chicago now, because we’re far more real than L.A.,” it made me think of Nelson Algren’s quote declaring Chicago “a lovely so real.” What role does Chicago play in this book, why Chicago, and what is the lure of that which is real? It seems the characters in the book both want to escape the real, but at the same time participate in something real or at least observe something real.
Well, Billy is not an expert on the real. For people like that, the real is only relative. The new thing is more real than the previous. And so the reality of Chicago in that world is that it is not L.A… I find it insulting but also amusing, that people [from New York] actually say things like, “people are so real” [in Chicago] because the implication of that is that we’re real inadvertently, that is, we don’t have enough sophistication to project and present ourselves in a social context that requires sophisticated cultural code. We burp and fart. They would never do that in LA. or in New York. It’s so condescending. It’s fantastically condescending. But for Billy, it’s just a selling point.
I think there is something about Chicago. I will not call it real. Real is a compromised word in this country, in this age. Nabokov long ago said that reality is a word that should only be used in quotation marks and this was well before there was reality TV. I would say, however, that there is less glamour to cover up the lines and holes of conflict and discrepancies than in New York or in L.A., which are committed to producing the veneer of presumable harmony. Chicago has so many shootings, kids die daily, and there is no glamour, there’s no Fashion-fucking-Week that can cover that up. There are no stars on the sidewalk, no red carpet premieres that can cover up the folds of racial injustice in Chicago. You can never cover that up. Conflicts are hard to cover up in Chicago. Some of them are covered, many of them are covered, [but] here, I think it’s harder. It’s more intense here and there is not enough entertainment produced in the city to cover it up. Entertainment covers all the cracks—entertainment also produces reality, in quotation marks.
There is a passage at the end of the book about prisoners being protected from the fact that the world had come to an end and it’s their ignorance of that knowledge that affords them a “space for hope.” Do you feel that we are currently living through a kind of Apocalypse? Or do you have hope for humankind?
I think “hope” is another word that is contaminated, like “reality” and “community” and “freedom” and all that crap. It becomes meaningless. I don’t want people to live without “hope”; I just want the word not to be used so cheaply. I think that the belief in hope increases with the levels of oblivion and so my preferred intellectual engagement, or mental engagement, or emotional engagement with the world is to know exactly what is happening and see how we can figure out ways to make it better. So we can hope that climate change might somehow stop by itself or hope that it doesn’t exist, or we can do something about it. If someone starts talking to me about “hope,” I’m leaving the fucking room—or “freedom” for that matter, or any of those things. Those words have become completely meaningless. It’s the corn syrup of American ideology. It’s what we do, not what we hope for. I hope. [Laughter.]
May 13 Performance of “The Making of Zombie Wars” at The Hideout, 1354 West Wabansia, Chicago, (773)227-4433, 6pm.
“The Making of Zombie Wars”
By Aleksandar Hemon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages, $26