Bennett Sims, A Questionable Shape, Two Dollar Radio, 2013
After reading Bennett Sims' A Questionable Shape, I was left with one question: why aren't more people talking about this? I've seen reviews of it elsewhere, and maybe this is only a comment on the conversations I'm having, but—holy shit, this seems to me a book that voices from all over the literary community should be talking about. And I don't mean should be like ought, like I'm telling you what to do; I mean I would think a whole host of readers would be interested in this from a range of different angles: the post-postmodern, the zombie-lover, the lover of good and compelling fictions, those who are from Baton Rouge, whatever.
In essence, it is a book about a lost father and a quest to find him, presumed undead, in a Baton Rouge suffering from a mysterious infection that brings the recently dead and bitten back to life. But the great achievement of this book—the big, foreground achievement, that is, among many (many) achievements here, in language, plot, philosophical explorations, etc.—is that the "zombies" (or undead as they are called here) are only ever the background, serving to charge the scenes and the discussions throughout the book, which really is a novel about relationships. The narrator, Michael Vermaelen, lives with Rachel and spends his days driving Baton Rouge with his friend Matt Mazoch searching all the most likely places an undead Mr. Mazoch might return, since the undead "return to the familiar." There are hardly any undead in the book, and when they appear they are at a distance and mostly safely so, in quarantines or under police supervision. They are not monsters to be destroyed by a band of characters battering zombie brains or whatever; they are still endowed with rights even inalienable in undeath. But what they do is raise a string of philosophical questions—ranging from what the undead see (Sims' knowledge and capacity are on display page after page, but his treatment of the philosophical zombie and the question of a being without consciousness and his description of the Holbein death's head view of life the undead might see leave the reader breathless and flushed with readerly joy), to the ethics of killing an undead parent, to the poignant idea of whether the one you love is a self with a single identity or instead is a composite of relational selves (thus meaning in undeath she may not haunt the places you shared, but reveal other selves unknown to you in life), etc. This is so many layers of brilliant: what really haunts and stalks the characters in the book are things like this: what memories do you hope your undead self will most cherish, what shared moments of love and life and beauty will guide your undead self in its (the book is consistent in this de-selfing pronoun with the undead) endless shuffling paths—whether sightless or seen, whether distantly aware or only compelled by muscle memory, lacking all cognition and consciousness—around the ambit of the familiar? And what if you found your undead lover or father haunting someplace for which you know no context, obsessively gravitated by an undead telos you can't understand and which shows you did not truly know him/her in life? This is true fear: not of zombies, not of the external undead terrors lurking around any corner, or even of the possibility your best friend or significant other might one day approach you familiarly only to bite and infect you; no, the true fear is the internal, the threat that maybe all the things we most hold dear, we most care about, aren't really real, or don't mean anything at all.
Apart from references and allusions ranging from Chalmers to Holbein to Tarkovsky, there are also some pretty great embedded zombie references, in particular one to Barbara (cf. Romero's original) that felt true and fit and perfect and yet also like it really just had to happen eventually.
But I shouldn't indulge in too much summary. Go read this book.
Just one other thing, though: of all the philosophical discussions, ideas, etc., I think maybe the prevailing issue being explored here (brought to life, if you'll excuse the pun), though never explicitly so, is belief: there are various examples of this, but what caught my eye was the repeated use of "Bethlehem stars," the idea of something guiding us, whether that something is the glimmering asterism of distant memories, remembered but ill-seen or -understood by our undead, unconscious selves, or whether those lodestars are an undead, -dying belief in the findabilty of what we've lost, our father, whether zombified or otherwise, etc. In other words, it is the idea of belief here that guides these characters—in certain senses, they each need to believe, they each need there to be some meaning in these repeated Bethlehem stars, something that despite all the evident backdrop of gore and apocalypse, hopelessness and creeping inevitable (walking) death, there are these signs showing the way to the birth of the impossible, a symbol (as it were) that there is something, truly, to be found.
Also then though the idea that our lives have meaning, that those we love, and what we share with them, our daily activities, that these have a meaning, an impact, that they will guide us in undeath as we wander that physical afterlife, white-eyed and moaning.
This is also to say that belief courses through the differences in perception between characters, the ways in which they can doubt each others' motives, or wonder whether indeed the evidence or traces being found are actually evidencing anything, or even whether the traces were placed by him who would find them as a way of legitimizing this crazymaking, endless, and irrational searching. That is to say: the believer sees all evidence as supporting his thesis. And likewise, the impossibility of proof (or so it seems) leaves open various crazymaking interpretations of this selfsame evidence (morning star, evening star).
Given his connection to David Foster Wallace, Sims has perhaps naturally been compared to him, but this seems maybe best—and insofar as the comparison is meant to emphasize the writer's talent, I happily agree—in considering how both Infinite Jest and A Questionable Shape manage to create richly imagined worlds (a near-future science fiction in which rogue Quebecois in wheelchairs conspire to end us via providing for us a fatally addictive infantilizing entertainment, a Baton Rouge beset by undead in floating barges on the Mississippi) that only serve to heighten the richly imagined inner lives of the characters in them. Though Wallace and Sims fuse (or break or whatever) genres in their work, the immense complexity of consciousness and our thinking selves is the true terrain they explore, and fucking deftly. As a further example, alluded to above, Vermaelen sets up an exercise with Rachel where they will each write down the places they think their undead selves are most likely to return (one of the best parts of the novel), and then Sims devotes pages to Vermaelen's furious inner ratiocinating as he tries to decide what places he would really haunt versus those he'd like to say he'd haunt but who knows?, and whether in fact it's possible Rachel will not list places he has thought important, whether (setting up a pretty great Joyce joke) indeed she will list places that are important to her but that predate their relationship and that she's never mentioned before, etc., ending the scene at the climactic moment when the lists of places are about to be revealed.
I think a maybe better comparison (of style) would be to Nicholson Baker (specifically The Mezzanine), though using that philosophical attention to detail, that Shandy-esque progressive digression tactic, with weightier subjects: death, love, memory, self, forgiveness, ethics, etc., and all in the supercharged context of a world teetering on the brink of an undead pandemic.
But why bother drawing comparisons? Sims is Sims is Sims, and A Questionable Shape is a testament to the singular voice and range of this writer, whose work I think deserves a lot of attention and if everyone is already talking about it and it is only me who didn't know that, good. [MS]