A Questionable Shape

By Bennett Sims


Two Dollar Radio
May 2013

Reviewed by Michael Jauchen


If we know anything from classic zombie narratives, it's that the undead move slowly. Unlike vampires or werewolves, who terrorize in flashes, you can see the undead coming from a long way off. You could easily outrun them. Hell, you could stand and stare at them from a distance if you really wanted to. This difference, of course, has metaphorical and existential consequences; zombies embody our anxieties about death's slow and imminent encroachment in ways more sprightly monsters can't. But for the writer of zombie narratives, this difference also creates a tricky narrative problem. In a genre where the villains can move only at a snail's pace trudge, what's a writer to do to fill up all that downtime? How do you create a sense of action when you're dealing with monsters that insist on being so action-less?

In his new zombie novel, A Questionable Shape, Bennett Sims solves the problem of narrative inaction by reveling in it. When the story opens, the initial zombie outbreak is already old news. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as Sims describes it, is a city of aftereffects, a place where the horror of the unknown has given way to the tentative stability of bureaucratic containment. Police routinely round up the stray undead and place them on quarantined barges as if they were jailing drunks. FEMA's stepped in, and government-issue brochures detail what to do if a loved one gets bitten. As Sims's narrator, Mike Vermaelen, tells us, "The worst that's going to happen appears to have already happened, and life in the city is returning to some version of normal."

It's in this new version of normal that we find Vermaelen and Matt Mazoch, two well-read college friends who are scouring Baton Rouge in the hopes of finding Mazoch's father, a man recently disappeared and feared to be infected. Over the course of a week, Mazoch and Vermaelen visit and revisit all the old man's local haunts—Vermaelen tells us the undead "wander to nostalgically charged sites from their former lives." The search is repetitive and arduous and long. Each day, Vermaelen and Mazoch stake out the same abandoned cityscapes, desolate parks, and boarded up restaurants in the hopes that Mazoch's father might wander through. They wait and wait, and they talk and talk. And when the day's search is over, Vermaelen returns home to his girlfriend, Rachel, to talk some more.

It's a minimal plot, but that's because plot isn't the point here. This is a purposefully horror-less and circumspect novel, one that's less about zombies and more about thinking about zombies. Sims's narrative energy doesn't derive from the threat of an impending zombie attack, and it doesn't really stem from the mystery surrounding Mr. Mazoch's disappearance. Instead, the real energy comes from the lively and wide-ranging ways Vermaelen attempts to figure out just what the undead actually are. How do the undead see, for example? How is it they remember? Are they like us? What can they know of desire and longing? Just how is Vermaelen supposed to wrap his head around the ontological oxymoron of "the living dead" exactly?

In his extended conversations with Mazoch and Rachel, we see Vermaelen think through these questions from every angle imaginable. As a voracious reader, his source material often skews erudite; at points he touches on Freud, Proust, Wordsworth, Hans Holbein, and Giorgio Agamben. But Vermaelen also considers the ways undeath has crept into even the most mundane corners of his life. An oily smudge on a car's rearview mirror serves as a springboard for thinking about undead sight ("Is that how it is to be undead, I wonder? Is everything blurred like this, when seen through undead eyes?"). When Vermaelen and Mazoch grasp for metaphors to explain the epidemic's spread, they look to video games, sparking a heated debate on the semiotics of Goldeneye and Command and Conquer. Even the footnotes littering Vermaelen's account are reminders of undeath's über-pervasiveness: "the footnote digs a grave in the text, an underworld in the text."

At the heart of Vermaelen's deepening fascination with the undead, of course, are questions about the limitations of his own human subjectivity. The zombies of Baton Rouge may be catatonic, caged like animals on the Mississippi River, but they're also privy to a secret Vermaelen isn't—what it's like to die. And that difference is more than enough to feed Vermaelen's strange attraction to them. In describing his first encounter with an infected ("a middle-aged man in running clothes"), Vermaelen's thoughts are tinged with envy, a resigned understanding that the creature staring vacantly at him in the dark isn't playing by the same epistemological rules:

He was present, but only as the manifestation of an absence. Neither here, nor not here. Neither a brain-damaged human, nor a murderous corpse. Nor even, quite, some indeterminate mixture between the two. It seemed in that moment as if I could go on accreting neithers like this all night—as if I could stand here, all night, frozen in apophatic paralysis—and still be no nearer an understanding of what he was. Of what it would be like to be him.

These paradoxes are as potentially annihilative as they are alluring, and they all revolve around a simple, but no less pressing, internal conflict: the things Vermaelen can know versus the things he can't.

This tension drives the action here. It crops up most readily in Vermaelen's thinking about the undead, but it also rears its head in his relationships with the living. Some of Sims's best writing in this novel comes in those moments Vermaelen details the tight-knit intimacy he feels with Rachel, those vivid memories they share that are seared with "semi-tragic nostalgia." In Rachel, Vermaelen sees the possibility of an authentic and complete knowledge of something other than himself, but also a continual reminder that such knowledge is ultimately impossible. As the two of them make a precautionary list of the places they're likely to return to if they become infected, Vermaelen can only sit paralyzed, fixated on those untouchable "millions of moments in Rachel's past that have yet to come up in conversation, entire years of biographical material and life experience that have gone unmentioned."

In the novel's first footnote, Vermaelen meditates on the connections between homing pigeons and the undead: "Sometimes I wonder whether we, the living, are constantly generating the magnetoreceptive memory pellets that will guide us in undeath." On one level, Sims's methodical narrative approach in A Questionable Shape focuses our attention on these tiny pellets. When he regularly detours from the central action to give us ten pages of backstory about the details surrounding the death of Rachel's father, or the way Mazoch and his father strangely bond over Tarkovsky's Solaris, Sims gets us looking at the intricate and extensive histories that inform every one of our impulses. We leave these traces behind us as we go through our routines; to try to catalog them would be maddening. But by slowing the action down to a near standstill, Sims allows us at least a glimpse of the monstrous weight we all lug on our individual trudges through daily life.