IS IT SURPRISING that Bennett Sims’s novel A Questionable Shape, which focuses on attempts to resume normal life during a plague of cannibalistic undead, is set in Baton Rouge? Sims doesn’t overtly use the paranormal as a metaphor for recent tragedies, but his choice of setting is resonant: the fact is, a novel set along the Louisiana coastline on the eve of hurricane season has more weight than, say, a novel with a similar plot set in Tacoma or Syracuse. Writing in The New Inquiry about survivalist strains of disaster narratives, Amanda Shapiro notes that “[t]he true nightmare […] isn’t the disaster itself; it’s the disorder and anarchy the disaster spells, the eruption of longstanding socioeconomic tensions.” While Shapiro is writing of elitist, reactionary concerns, Sims’s novel taps into the reverse, playing with familiar scenarios to summon memories of societal unrest and the failure of authorities to solve the underlying issue. And while he’s not the only writer inspired by post-Katrina Louisiana (consider the surreal imagery of Nick Antosca’s 2009 ghost story Midnight Picnic, or Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, which demonstrates that a work of deeply realist fiction can still abound with horrific imagery) I do wonder whether, as the aftermath of Sandy ebbs into the cultural unconscious, we’ll start to see literary horror set against the backdrops of Atlantic City, Staten Island, or the Rockaways.
The narrator of A Questionable Shape is Vermaelen, an intellectual prone to running nearly everything he encounters through a gauntlet of analysis and metaphor. Vermaelen lives with his girlfriend Rachel in a city that is struggling to return to relative normalcy following an outbreak of undead cannibals. More simply, zombies — though that word is only uttered briefly, in the context of Vermaelen referencing David Chalmers’s The Conscious Mind.
A Questionable Shape takes place over the course of one week, during which Vermaelen is mostly occupied in assisting his friend Mazoch in the search for Mazoch’s father, who vanished from his home amidst signs of a struggle, and is now most likely one of the undead shambling from place to meaningful place in his former life. And so the structure sets itself up: Mazoch pondering the life of his father; Vermaelen pondering Mazoch; Rachel pondering Vermaelen. Each concerned with the other, each analyzing the other’s motives. Often, they seem to be seeking the perfect metaphor for the undead around them. Consider Vermaelen’s speculation that the undead’s thoughts are “a chaff cloud of remembrance,” for one. Or Mazoch riffing on the video game GoldenEye: “He visualizes the epidemic as a global agglomeration of kill screens.”
Make no mistake: these characters have a tendency to overanalyze virtually everything. Vermaelen’s narrative abounds with footnotes. Some of them muse on the philosophical roots and ramifications of the undead epidemic; others provide historical background on this outbreak. And it must be intentional that some of A Questionable Shape’s most traditionally horror-narrative scenes play out in this space. Vermaelen’s fondness for footnotes, he explains, is rooted in the contemporary condition:
Since the outbreak, I have often reflected that the footnote is the typographic mark most emblematic of undeath. By opening up a subjective 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 unconsciousness.
The footnotes continue throughout the book. It’s a neat metaphor, and if it seems a little too neat — well, that might be the point. Vermaelen’s constant musing on everything, and his relative detachment, becomes a serious plot point; late in the novel, a rightly upset Rachel verbally eviscerates him for his relatively unaffected demeanor, his seeming lack of decisiveness when it comes to his relationships. Vermaelen, then, is someone who, when faced with a crisis, opts for the most detached perspective on it.
Admittedly, he lives in a world where detachment might be an advantage. He describes a government-issued brochure called FIGHT THE BITE; after reading it, he and Rachel practice “defamiliarization,” a process by which you try to remove certain associations with the faces of the people you love.
Defamiliarization may be the most unsettling thing in this novel, more so than ravening undead or the threat of natural catastrophe. Here’s a description of what this entails:
The illustration featured a blank-faced man and a blank-faced woman seated in profile, staring into each other’s eyes, as if competing in a blinking contest. Between their pupils a single horizontal line extends, and crawling across this wire is a series of wriggles, such as a cartoonist might use to depict heat rising off of a road. But what each wriggle really resembles — in this context — is a graveyard worm, inching from one eye to the other. As the caption explains, the participants are projecting these wriggles to “estrange” each other’s faces.
That question of intimacy, and of family, manifests itself most strikingly in Mazoch’s search for his father. The two Mazochs share a fondness for both Steven Soderbergh and Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptations of Solaris — both of which, Vermaelen reminds us, involve frayed familial bonds and mysteriously returned dead. The question of what, exactly, Mazoch plans to do when he finds his father is left hanging for most of the novel. As Mazoch and Vermaelen pass through the spaces that Mazoch believes to be most significant to his father, Vermaelen ponders this narrative’s resolution. Is Mazoch seeking a final moment of closure? A kind of mercy-killing of his (theoretically) undead father? Or something else?
There is a ticking clock present here — actually, there are several. First among them is the onset of hurricane season, something which might well obliterate traces of stray undead. That same condition also threatens to wash ashore several floating detention areas for the quarantined undead — an event which promises a sinister outcome. An earlier tragedy is recounted — one in which several detained undead washed ashore and attacked a series of homes.
Vermaelen often speaks of the first time he saw an undead human walking down the street; seen from a distance, he recounts, it hardly looked malicious. And that’s at the core of Sims’s conception of the undead: they retrace the pathways of their old life, slowly decaying, until — one assumes — they are no more. Which isn’t to say that they might not turn ravenous in a heartbeat; as with any good narrative with horror in its roots, there is a pervasive sense of fear lurking below all of the proceedings, from Vermaelen’s musings on literature and philosophy to his quarrels with Rachel to his errands with Mazoch. Late in the book, he gives voice to his dread:
In a matter of months, I sometimes assume, I will be fed upon, or all my loved ones will be fed upon, or I will take my own life, or, unable to bring myself to do this even after state and social institutions have collapsed entirely, I will grub among garbage bins behind abandoned grocery stores, defending myself from nomadic, malnourished, and desperate humans as much as from the undead.
Some of his evocations of anxiety are alien to the reader, but plenty — especially if you swap in “fed upon” for a more general sense of mortality. But Sims’s note about the collapse of institutions also taps into a more contemporary anxiety. It’s not for nothing that A Questionable Shape and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One — both cerebral zombie novels that involve, to some extent, the notion of societal institutions trying gamely to recover, but not quite getting there — are set in Baton Rouge and Lower Manhattan, respectively. In pondering the housing of the undead, Vermaelen suggests that “it seems likelier that the city’s surveyors will find some disused municipal building (a library, a prison, a dorm room) to be retrofitted as a quarantine.” To call A Questionable Shape a Katrina parable — or, for that matter, a parable of the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill — would be inaccurate, but in the background are a number of distinctly contemporary concerns.
The debates that its three main characters conduct about the nature of the undead and their own futures are the source of much of A Questionable Shape’s tension. Vermaelen, it transpires, lost both of his parents before the rise of the undead; in childhood, Rachel witnessed the slow death of her father. For Mazoch, there is far more ambiguity in his own reckoning with the demise of those close to him. And that collision of mindsets leads to a climactic dinner scene in which there’s more wrenching than any zombie attack.
“The infected need to be burned or buried, not barged,” Mazoch argues, and the expansion of this idea prompts a dark night of the soul for all three — motivations are questioned and mortality pondered. After the fight, after Mazoch has departed, Vermaelen and Rachel lay in bed. “She has her back to mine,” Vermaelen recounts, “in the addorsed posture of domestic discord, and I think I can feel her nod in the dark. We pass the rest of the night in silence. For my part, I have not been able to fall asleep. I doubt that Rachel has either.”
In the end, the detachment of Sims’s narrator pays off. Mazoch’s search for his father — whether for catharsis or a mercy-killing — reaches a logical conclusion. Sims spends much of the novel reserving the potential of its conclusion: it could be a metaphorical one, or it could be much more visceral. (It’s fair to say that Anton Chekhov’s precept about a loaded gun on the mantelpiece can just as easily apply to the ravenous undead.) Sims’s ending is faithful to the measured, intellectual work that precedes it: he doesn’t suddenly shift gears into outright horror, but neither does he forget the dangers of this altered world. Everything converges in one precisely organized scene, culminating in a final sentence that serves as both quiet punctuation for the preceding narrative and an unnerving statement of self-determination. In this way, Sims is ultimately true to both his narrative and the one found in his footnotes, where both intellectual musings and horror set pieces can coexist. The resulting novel both satisfies and upends familiar tropes, reassuring even as it offers numb potential and a bleaker tomorrow.
Tobias Carroll has covered music and books for a number of publications, and his fiction has appeared in THE2NDHAND, 3:AM, Vol.1, and, Word Riot.