Joshua Levin wants to see himself as the hero of his story. As an American hero, a Hollywood star battling time and tide, or at least a ceaseless flow of zombies — like Major Klopstock in Levin's perpetually unfinished screenplay Zombie Wars.
But Levin isn't a hero. He's one of the zombies.
Throughout Aleksandar Hemon's The Making of Zombie Wars, Levin thinks deep thoughts (at least, he re-thinks the deep thoughts of the philosopher Spinoza). Meanwhile his body moves in mindless pursuit of its vague desires.
Levin discards the good life he has accidentally built, because he follows his hunger. But he doesn't hunger for anything in particular — he just hungers.
The story is set in Chicago in Spring 2003, and although it's a world away, the backdrop of the Iraq invasion looms large. Saddam's statue is torn down on TV while Levin's less dramatic drama unfolds, and Hemon insists on some connection between the two.
Levin keeps drawing the connection as well. His mind is a meat processor. In goes the war — in goes his family fights — in goes his crazed landlord and his violent relations with various Bosnian immigrants — in goes his bartender's goiter. It all comes out in a shapeless mass, as the screenplay for Zombie Wars, excerpts of which Hemon scatters between the chapters.
Hemon, who found himself an accidental Bosnian immigrant (he was visiting Chicago when war erupted in his home country, preventing his return), seems to approach the material through two filters.
The first is the assumption that war leaves none untouched — not even guys like Joshua Levin, as far from the conflict in Baghdad as it is possible for an American to be.
The second is the premise that America understands itself through the dream lens of the Hollywood camera, and this “understanding” is really an aggressive form of denial.
Both ideas are true, but they are also banal, available even to the characters. At one point, Levin notes that “Lips, like clouds, forced clichés upon you.” In the same way, Hemon's concept forces him to construct the novel around a series of clichés and stereotypes. Elsewhere: “Her eyes were dark and — as they'd say in a novel — foreboding.”
Nevertheless, Hemon does an admirable job of arranging and approaching what might otherwise make for a bland, aimless plot. Hemon's prose is elegant and stylish without feeling contrived. At his best, he achieves a wry depth: “The beauty of life is that eventually everybody turns into a zombie, whereupon they die.”
The scenes where Levin navigates his family dynamics are weak and accomplish little, but Levin's romantic complications achieve a slapstick grace. Hemon escalates events to the level of a blockbuster comedy, but the scenes still feel grounded and plausible.
Ultimately, The Making of Zombie Wars is a funny, light read that wraps solemnity and substance around Levin's otherwise predictable shambling.
Hemon's peppering of Levin's draft scripts for Zombie Wars are pitch-perfect, oblivious to their own weaknesses. Levin's occasional, never-to-be-written script ideas are also so perfectly dumb that you can't believe they haven't already made millions:
“Script Idea #87: A woman scientist develops an experimental sex-changing drug she tests on herself; she transforms into a violent man who exacts revenge on all the assholes who disrespected her, including her lecherous ex-husband. Title: Mrs. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”