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A Questionable Shape cover

Recently, Adam Brooke Davis, an English professor at Truman State University, wrote a piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "No More Zombies!" In the article, Davis describes how his frustration with his students' poor writing led him to ban "alt-worlding" from his creative-writing workshop, insisting that students write about "real environments" and "real people."

A full discussion of the problems with Professor Davis's piece is beyond the scope of this essay, but it's a safe bet he hasn't read Bennett Sims's A Questionable Shape, published earlier this year by Two Dollar Radio.[1] "What we know about the undead so far is this," the novel opens: "they return to the familiar" (p. 11). Knowledge, the undead, return, the familiar: these ideas circle through Sims's magnetic and accomplished debut, which attempts to peer beneath the surface of the "real."

1. Knowledge

What do we know, and how? These are pressing questions for Sims's protagonist, Michael Vermaelen, a former philosophy student who now lives with his girlfriend Rachel in a boarded-up apartment in Baton Rouge. The apartment is boarded up to keep out the zombies. This is one of the first pieces of advice, Vermaelen tells us, in FIGHT THE BITE, an "infection-awareness pamphlet" distributed by the Louisiana Center for Disease Control: lights attract the undead, so the uninfected are instructed to cover their windows as if they're expecting an air raid. FIGHT THE BITE is condensed knowledge. Vermaelen refers to it several times in the course of the novel, often in the footnotes that shadow nearly every page. The pamphlet contains information, illustrations, and warnings, but not the type of knowledge Vermaelen craves. Vermaelen wants to know the undead. He wants to know how they feel: "Whenever an infected bites you," he imagines, "the bite wound must form a nidus of numb tingling, which spreads steadily outward: starting from the arm and climbing up the shoulder, across the chest, over the stomach, until your whole body falls asleep" (pp. 60-1). He wants to know how they see: "What if that is what it is like to become undead? Not like being blinded, but just the opposite: like being promoted into a new modality of seeing, one that would seem infinitely advanced and incomprehensible to mortals" (p. 38). Vermaelen wants to know what the undead know.

2. The Undead

Of course, this is impossible: like death, undeath can only be known through experience. But Vermaelen's a thinker, and he can't help thinking about it. Throughout the novel, which takes place over the course of one week, he turns the idea of undeath around in his mind, viewing it from different angles. He's also engaged in the practical project of helping his friend, Matt Mazoch, search for Mazoch's father, who has disappeared, and may have been infected. Together, Mazoch and Vermaelen tour places Mazoch's father frequented, hoping to find him, either living or undead. And Vermaelen thinks. He brings all the resources of his education to bear on the terrible problem confronting him, the problem of undeath. Undeath is the distorted smudge of the skull in Hans Holbein the Younger's painting, The Ambassadors. It's a kill screen in a video game (Mazoch gives him that idea). It's the shift in perspective that happens when you gaze at a Necker cube. It's a "neither ____ nor ____" construction. Vermaelen's musings—erudite, inventive, frequently dazzling—create the energy of this novel.

3. Return

Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,

Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,

Be thy intents wicked or charitable,

Thou comest in such a questionable shape

That I will speak with thee.

The words are Hamlet's, addressed to his father's ghost. Fathers haunt A Questionable Shape: the plot revolves around the search for Mazoch's father, and Rachel's character has been formed by the ten years she spent helping to nurse her father, who died of lung cancer. Only Vermaelen seems to have escaped the burden of a lost, helpless, or decaying father: his parents both died in a car crash, and he scattered their ashes himself, something which now gives him quite a bit of comfort. Of course, he's involved with both Mazoch and Rachel, so he's affected by their fathers' ghostly presences. Rachel dreams of her father's corpse, while Mazoch's father keeps coming back: from divorce, from a heart attack, and now even from death, "like some obedient fatherly boomerang" (p. 73). There's something wrong with a dad who won't stay dead. At the same time, many of us long for our lost parents. How much do we want them back? What will Mazoch do if he finds his father? The smart thing would be to go for Mazoch Senior with a baseball bat. Can he do it? I will speak with thee.

4. The Familiar

Vermaelen isn't sure what Mazoch plans to do, and this is a source of conflict with Rachel, who believes the infected should be quarantined until a cure for their condition is found. Rachel doesn't trust Mazoch, and worries that Vermaelen will wind up an accessory to murder. Vermaelen finds himself unable to explain to Rachel how Mazoch might kill his father out of a sense of duty. "To do so I would have to persuade her of the logic of 'Mr. Mazoch is not Mr. Mazoch,' 'My father is not my father,' this sense in which a hungry creature that has inherited only the body, the remembered itinerary, and the gait of a man . . . is not the man himself" (pp. 71-2). In other words, the familiar is not necessarily the real.

FIGHT THE BITE recommends that people practice "defamiliarization techniques" with their loved ones. Rachel hates the idea, but Vermaelen insists they give it a try. "Estrange me once, two times, while I'm still alive—train yourself to not recognize the me in my face—so that you won't be caught off guard when I'm undead" (p. 134). A Questionable Shape is an exercise in defamiliarization: Vermaelen's "Estrange me" recalls Darko Suvin's "cognitive estrangement" and Viktor Shklovsky's "making strange." The familiar, this novel contends, is not only unreal—it's also dangerous, even deadly, if unquestioned.

Where the novel stumbles—which it hardly ever does—is in failing to ask questions. Sarah Blackman, writing for Bookslut, takes issue with the character of Rachel: "an iconic woman-shape," Blackman writes, "with few traces of a discernable inner life." For Blackman, Rachel is a standard-issue Perfect Girlfriend, an unquestioned shape. I agree that there's something awfully familiar about blond, sweet Rachel, once a devoted daughter, now an equally devoted lover, whose inexhaustible tenderness extends even to zombies. Rachel's loveliness could have used a little defamiliarization.[2] I'm also disappointed in Sims's use of suicide bombings in Tel Aviv to express the randomness of attacks by the undead: a metaphor that, like Rachel's golden availability, goes unquestioned. The comparison arises in an email Rachel writes Vermaelen, urging him not to let the threat of "flare-ups" of the plague keep him from living a normal life:

That there were periodic flare-ups in shopping malls didn't seem to derail people's lives any more than that, in Tel Aviv, there were periodic suicide bombings in cafés and public buses, she wrote. People drove to the grocery store ("Even Whole Foods!") as they always had, and if on the way there they spotted an infected in the road, very well, they might pull over to look at it (the way that when a black bear, a cub, wanders out onto the shoulder of a rural highway, people always pull over to photograph it), or else they might just drive past it altogether indifferently. (p. 48)

The pairing of suicide bombings and bear cubs naturalizes the former, erasing the history and geopolitics underlying terrorism in the Middle East. The move is repeated when Vermaelen, feeling optimistic, decides that Rachel is right: undeath is "no more apocalyptic, in the end, than AIDS, the West Nile virus, or bird flu" and "as far from our beautiful neighborhood . . . as those bombs in Tel Aviv" (p. 49). Considering that Vermaelen later invokes Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer, and "the divestment of political life from the biological body" (p. 189), it's particularly unfortunate that Sims never lets him address the way his own metaphor strips political life from the biological bodies of suicide bombers.

And yet, if I am now wondering about the possibilities and pitfalls of undeath as a political metaphor, it's due to Sims's unconventional and bracingly intelligent book. A Questionable Shape will make you wonder, worry, argue, and shudder, and if you happen to be a creative writing teacher, it will make you cry: "More Zombies!"


[1] I'm pretty sure he hasn't read Colson Whitehead's Zone One (2011) either, or Catherynne M. Valente's story "The Days of Flaming Motorcycles".

[2] During his defamiliarization exercise with Rachel, Vermaelen asks her to roll her eyes back in her head so that she'll look more like a zombie. "Dutifully," Rachel complies, but the experiment fails: her expression reminds Vermaelen of "the face she makes during orgasms" (p. 139). It's possible that we're meant to be critical of Vermaelen's inability to defamiliarize Rachel's physical perfection here, but not likely. I expect we're intended to sympathize with the way his imagination conjures a sexualized body rather than a dead one, and that the scene is supposed to be what it is: comical and sad. "[M]y penis stiffens. 'Okay, that doesn't seem to be helping,' I say" (p. 140).

Sofia Samatar is the author of the novel A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer Press, 2013). Her poetry, short fiction, and reviews have appeared in a number of places, including Clarkesworld Magazine, Weird Fiction Review, Stone Telling, and Goblin Fruit. She is the nonfiction and poetry editor for Interfictions: A Journal of Interstitial Arts. She blogs at sofiasamatar.blogspot.com.



Sofia Samatar is the author of the novels A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories. She is the recipient of the William L. Crawford Award, the John W. Campbell Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the World Fantasy Award. Her first short story collection, Tender, is now available from Small Beer Press.
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