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From Monday, 31 March through Saturday, 5 April, I read Joyce Carol Oates's novel Zombie (NY: HarperCollins; 2009 [originally published in 1995 by Dutton]; e-book edition [Kindle edition]; 196 pps.; ISBN: 978-0-061-960116) on my Kindle.
cover to Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates's Zombie is the first person journal narrative, complete with crude Magic Marker drawings, of a registered sex offender turned serial killer named Quentin P____ (one of whose aliases is Todd Cuttler), who prowls the lower peninsula of Michigan (primarily the fictional university town of Mount Vernon, near Lake Michigan, although sometimes he ventures as far afield as Lansing, Detroit, and Ann Arbor) in search of "love" -- really, sex slaves -- in the persons of various, largely non-white, teenaged boys and young men; Quentin P___'s journal documents, in more or less linear fashion, his progression from an inept "kiddie fiddler" to an impulsive, obsessive serial killer in his late thirties as he attempts to create a "ZOMBIE": a lobotomized sex slave (to this end, he visits the dentist at his mother's urging, and steals one of the dental picks there since he sees it as an ideal tool to perform a transorbital lobotomy on his victims) who will obey his every command:

"A true ZOMBIE would be mine forever. He would obey every command & whim. Saying 'Yes, Master' & 'No, Master.' He would kneel before me lifting his eyes to me saying, 'I love you, Master. There is no one but you, Master.

"& so it would come to pass, & so it would be. For a true ZOMBIE could not say a thing that was not, only a thing that was. His eyes would be open & clear but there would be nothing inside them seeing. & nothing behind them thinking. Nothing passing judgment.


"A ZOMBIE would pass no judgment. A ZOMBIE would say, 'God bless you, Master.' He would say, 'You are good, Master. You are kind & merciful.' He would say, 'Fuck me in the ass, Master, until I bleed blue guts.' He would beg for his food & he would beg for oxygen to breathe. He would beg to use the toilet not to soil his clothes. He would be respectful at all times. He would never laugh or smirk or wrinkle his nose in disgust. He would lick with his tongue as bidden. He would suck with his mouth as bidden. He would spread the cheeks of his ass as bidden. He would cuddle like a teddy bear as bidden. He would rest his head on my shoulder like a baby. Or I would rest my head on his shoulder like a baby. We would eat pizza slices from each other's fingers. We would lie beneath the covers in my bed in the CARETAKER's room listening to the March wind & the bells of the Music College tower chiming & WE WOULD COUNT THE CHIMES UNTIL WE FELL ASLEEP AT EXACTLY THE SAME MOMENT."

-- Chapter 15

The model for Quentin P___ is Jeffrey Dahmer; while Zombie is a short novel and a quick read, it's not without intellectual interest, particularly in Quentin's references to current theories in physics (such as dark matter), and in passages that recall the work of the so-called godfather of the Beats, William S. Burroughs:

"BIG GUY lived maybe fifteen hours I think dying as I was fucking him in the ass (not in the tub, in my bed) to discipline him as a ZOMBIE & I only comprehended he was dead when during the night waking needing to take a piss I felt how cold he was, arms & legs where I'd slung them over me & his head on my shoulder to cuddle but BIG GUY was stiffening in rigor mortis so I panicked thinking I would be locked in his embrace!"

-- Chapter 19

Come to that, the whole of Zombie is more than a little reminiscent of a distillation of much of Burroughs's work, given its obsessive, drug-and-alcohol-addled, deeply misogynistic protagonist with a narrow band of autodidactic learning, a tenuous grasp of reality, a bottomless well of rage alternating with inanition, and a perverted sex drive wholly wedded to a taste for violence and domination; add some psychic, giant, transdimensional centipedes, gunslinging boy-whores from the Old West or New York City's Lower East Side c. 1920, orgone projectors, dubious and absurd covert organizations, and an incompetent, junkie surgeon (paging Doc Benway...), and you'd have a full-blown Burroughs pastiche.

Zombie does have a fair share of acidulous, mordant humor, but it is by definition not to everyone's taste. Gore crows seeking another Michael Slade or Dexter or Hannibal Lecter are likely to be disappointed in Zombie, finding it too highfalutin and not nearly bloody enough (and, possibly, too "gay"); readers looking for more obvious literary merit are also likely feel let down by Zombie, finding it too lowbrow and too pulpy for serious consideration.

While I respect Ms. Oates's career and mostly admire her as a critic (although I think she is misguided in her evaluation of James M. Cain's Mildred Pierce), from what little I've read of her fiction thus far, I find that I admire her more than like her; her fiction seems almost wholly intellectually-driven, like Graham Greene's (he of the machine-tooled prose): it lacks that ineffable spark of life that characterizes my favorite works. In the end, Ms. Oates's fictional creations don't quite convince; they are cleverly crafted constructs, puzzled out at an emotional distance that prevents them from inspiring in their readers that frisson of truly great works.

Keeping these caveats in mind, Zombie is by no means a waste of time; I suspect that it is not truly representative of Ms. Oates's fiction, but it is an interesting oddity for all of that.

*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.


( 1 monkey shocked! — shock the monkey! )
Apr. 6th, 2014 10:24 am (UTC)
What I've read of her fiction has left me cold. Sterile and a bit on the nasty side.
( 1 monkey shocked! — shock the monkey! )


The supreme space lord who will now DEST
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