Zombies, Pre-teen Millionaires, and The Orange Priest of Orcus
By Dan Bjork
I absolutely plowed through M.R. Carey’s The Girl with all the Gifts, giddily even. I read on the subway, I read while my wife watched the Chilean version of Access Hollywood, I read at work while a high school freshman bickered with his mother about whether an hour was enough time to get to Wall Street from the UWS. This is all very new to me. I read hermetically (otherwise), super early in the morning, as an essential part of quieting my mind. I don’t really face the world without first spending 45 minutes inside someone else’s narrative. Most importantly, I think, this is first book I’ve read for FBC where an ‘I don’t have my hook yet’ panic never set in. Sunday night, while cooking a simple lentils, rice, and chicken thighs dish that leans heavily on Goya Adobo and should modestly get me through Wednesday (spoiler: it did), I began my notes. Assembling the roughest of outlines. All stemming from the single impression I had: that I really enjoyed this book.
And the notes were super simple, so much so I can share them in full: “Maybe it has something to do with the simple precision [re: language] –> its images are clear and never showy and never stacked to create ambiguity –> and this extends to the presentation of emotions as well. Situations are allowed to simply happen. Asked to bear the brunt of this weight. This flies in the face of everything my world-class education in writing 12 page stories seems to scream. How?”
It was oh-so naive of me. I read RJ’s straight talk express Monday morning and was legit embarrassed by how dead-on he was. In a fraction of the words this consumes — and with a clarity I’ll never approach — he lays bares how lazily stitched together the actions of the characters really are. It’s my failings as a critical reader to not have picked up on a single one of those. Real talk, reading his post Monday morning hit me like the Holy Ghost. Now, I’m sure you can feel the punchline coming: “literary fiction snob has low-level epiphany while reading single-entendre book meant to be enjoyed.”
Fuck that noise.
Instead, solely as an exercise, I’d like to assume my read wasn’t all that naive — that RJ nailed the case for objective truth — but somehow the ‘simple, precise, and never showy prose’ bamboozled me into throwing all sorts of personal things into the white space without being prompted by the text whatsoever. Then, I’d like to launch a forensic investigation into what those things were, exactly. And maybe even try/fail to build those bridges for the reader. Try to embrace my hyper-specific, world-class education to bring my read to consensus reality, if you will. And I mean fully embrace: I’m on the clock right now, marooned on a bench for the next 90 minutes at a U12 basketball practice and I’m about to shotgun a Red Bull and give you that dude I was ten years ago, the absolute darling of workshop who thought any problem could be solved simply by piling words on it in earnest.
(Alas, this is how most of my posts go. Sorry. I’m not in any way, shape, or form a professional at blogging and/or reviewing books, and when a chance presents itself to examine just how much I’ve already detached from our consensus reality, I cannot help myself.)
Issue: Once the main characters escape the base, the strings of the puppeteer are showing for real.
Quick recap, just in case if you haven’t already read RJ’s and Chandler’s (and you really should — right now — this wouldn’t exist without boldly standing on their shoulders; reading this by itself would be like trying to digest Hamlet solely from the player’s speech in R and G are dead): Melanie is a child infected by the zombie virus, and has zombie-eque urges/reactions to uninfected humans, but exhibits completely human behavior otherwise (thinking, feeling, etc.) Miss Justineau is one of a handful of teachers living on this remote base, tasked with instructing these infected children, who will then be studied/dissected by Dr. Caldwell. This all takes place at a repurposed military base north of London. Security for this base is headed by Sgt. Parks and among the dozen or so men under him is Gallagher. The base is overrun by people who survived but have stayed outside traditionally structured society and these are the five who escape. Thus we follow them on their forced march down to Beacon (south of London).
RJ’s comic book analogy is spot-on and laser-precision smart — Justineau shooting the flare, Justineau grabbing the infected samples — they don’t even have plot consequences; they make a lot of noise and then cease to exist completely. (Almost completely, Melanie sees the flare, notes what it means, then does absolutely nothing.) And it’s such a vibrant analogy, I can hear the writer/artist: none of the frames on this page have color, and I haven’t used orange in a while, etc. When this all is pressed hard enough, it sounds like this fantastic mutant of Brecht where the characters care more about holding our gaze than their our own existence, but that’s not on the page either (btw, 10 years-ago me would be all-the-fuck about a story that played with that on purpose, even though stories like that almost always grow awful after 12 pages).
Now, Gallagher running off in the final third is covered in plot-heavy fingerprints. Carey needs Gallagher dead and Justineau and Parks away from their post-apocalypse prepared mobile home (long story), in order to set up all the pieces for his unique take on The Zombies Always Win ending. And Gallagher’s reason for running off away from the group (and obviously getting eaten) is wafer-thin: Melanie reports a large group of people who live outside society right next door — the same sort who overran their base — so he completely loses his shit and runs away (without even taking what he would need to survive through the night). And of course the moral compass characters go after him. Of course.
What I hope I was throwing in the white space: I have no real expectation of people this hungry and physically exhausted to act rationally. I haven’t taken exercise/nutrition as more affordable mental health care for about ten years, but I put them at 2,500 calories deficit a day minimum, probably much closer to 3,500. Anything more precise is not at all clear because the text shows little concern. But more importantly, this sort of slippage isn’t even hinted — their basic human needs are mentioned but it is detached to the point of being very much like a videogame, with hungry and tired no more than meters on a screen that need to be occasionally refilled. (And in that vein, I’ve had Sims that evoked more sympathy w/r/t their basic human needs.) And exhaustion is nearly a non-issue, brought up occasionally, clinically, by the doctor who is running a high fever and about to die from septicemia.
D-Rock’s hot fix: Insert 3000+ words on hunger. How it presses, grows, builds. Seeps its way into everything, becomes the third voice, the ever tie-breaking vote (of dissent). Talk about the teetering state of dizziness — work in your first time wearing a football helmet: How you were marooned between the largest child size and the smallest adult size so were stuck with a helmet too big; how you’d been the fastest on your team during conditions sprints (without pads) but now with this half-size too big monstrosity on your head you’re barely middle of the pack, barely, that you trip and falls three times that first practice. No you don’t trip — you simply detach for a second and watch yourself fall. It doesn’t make sense, even as you’re on the ground. How when you’re hungry, persistently hungry while pressed into action, the shadow of this falls upon you randomly, like clouds in the sky. How people talk about standing up too fast — this phenomenon is so culturally acceptable it’s become cliche — but while you’re hungry and tired this can hit you whenever, even while standing completely still, like a wave, like almost a desire, meaning fighting it feels impossible, that it’d be oh-so-much easier simply to fall down. To do absolutely nothing and let it wash you away. But this too will pass on its own — the miracle of the human body — of survival, of weathering those dozen-or-so breaths and knowing to avoid curbs and steps and potholes and anything that could fuck with your inner ear.
It’s sexy to write about hunger again isn’t it? Shit gotten so bad that people with voices are hungry (and need to be dealt with in ways that aren’t paying them more so they can eat, apparently?) Honestly, I would riddle this thing with riffs on hunger, riffs that becomes choruses that mutate and deviate until the word itself means dozens of different things and nothing at all. (As a bonus, my crew back home uses ‘hungry’ and all of its derivatives the way the kids today use ‘thirsty,’ which made ‘gotta eat yo’ the end all be all excuse for questionable behavior.)
Issue: When they’re inside the fort, their actions are erratic and blatantly manipulative as is well.
I think this one is solely about Miss Justineau. The first third of the book anchors heavily on Melanie and expositional suspense of learning the rules of her current reality. Because of this, it’s easily the strongest of the book as we sink into an understanding right along with her. And as such, I think all of the character motivation wonkiness lies solely with Miss Justineau — it’s obvious enough that even the author shoehorns a backstory as to why she cares. Given some drunken/too dark to drive accident in the night-before-the-apocalypse past when she took the life of a non-zombie child who almost certainly would’ve died the next day anyway.
Honestly, I don’t need word-one to believe someone trapped a place that cold and hopeless would:
- become hopelessly attached to anything friendly.
- embrace that attachment w reckless abandon.
- be on the verge of losing his/her shit at all times, especially when who he/she cares about is brought into question and/or threatened.
But again, none of this is on the page. This is me throwing all my own shit in there unprompted. On the page is her backstory (reason): she has already taken the life of one child, meaning right now her score is -1. And she’ll die before letting anyone pull her down to -2 . Etc. I didn’t need any of that — it was clunky and awkward and I’m not even sure how much of what I just told you was hers and how much was the backstory of Beecher from Oz. It didn’t matter (to me).
D-Rock’s hot fix: Insert 3000 words on being trapped. On being middle management. The help. On how the only true source of emotional stability in your life is these children, children who will one day be taken from you. Always, it’s why you’re there. About the basics of human interaction when this is your life: when your legit conversation options over the course of an average day are the people who keep you there, the people who will one day take the kids from you, and the kids themselves. The kids themselves who look to you to solely give them the world. To translate everything for them, from what they see to how they feel. How the weight of these single-entendre interactions slowly build until they are all you have that you’re sure is real. In a world where every adult treats you solely as the sum of your utility. Where you are what you’re here for.
Now, this exercise has been fun (and it certainly filled the page, for whatever that’s worth), but I think the truth behind my naive read lies even deeper. For the past couple of years, I’ve nursed a theory as to why the zombie genre is so popular. Especially among the meat of our bell curve, the parts of America that don’t read literary fiction for pleasure. Back-home Facebook, in particular. (Which means people like me, to some inescapable degree.) They always have and still do swear by The Walking Dead (and its offshoot, and now Z-Nation as well) even with its writers nowadays openly antagonistic toward its audience. Here’s why I think that is: post-zombie apocalypse civilization presents a world where a person’s survival is solely dependent on his/her actions. It’s an iron-clad 1:1. This feels so clear to me that I’m sure it’s out there already, hidden and un-google-able behind the paywall of some glossy mag. This idea that a large swath of America finds comfort spending an hour each week inside macabre escapist fantasy where the deck get completely reshuffled and a person’s quality of life, down to whether they live or die, will be solely what he/she makes of it and where the key to success is simple and clear and across-the-board the same for everyone.
But my use of ‘everyone’ is telling, a personal slip, because back-home Facebook goes out of its way to prove they don’t mean everyone, not at all, what with their anti-Kaepernick hot takes and proudly voting for the Orange Priest of Orcus; where the only good thing to happen in the past eight years is the NYC sanitation test being offered again.
So once again, this is me throwing all sorts of my own shit into the white space that it didn’t ask for, and really, has no business being there (is this case especially).
But that leaves me all alone on a bench waiting for practice to end.