Death is everywhere in Alden Bell's Exit Kingdom, and not a beatific "floating up to cloudy heaven . . . [there are] no angel wings and toiletpaper-soft robes and dulcet harp-playing" (p. 21). This is a roving, aimless death, "a slow crawl of atrophied muscle and the vestigial instincts of our most piss-poor appetites" (ibid). Exit Kingdom (and its companion novel, The Reapers Are the Angels , to which Exit Kingdom is a prequel) is a zombie apocalypse novel written in muscular, minimalist prose reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006) or even something from Faulkner: bleak, spare writing for a bleak, spare world.
The tradition of the frame story is also mined here, The Odyssey as post-zombie outbreak campfire narrative. The novel is structured around its protagonist, Moses Todd, narrating events from the past to members of a caravan camped for the night somewhere on the way to Florida. As he begins his tale, Moses promises to "remember . . . some things on the topic of God" (p. 6). After all, this is very much a novel about faith: how to find it, how to lose it, how to live without it. Moses speaks now to these people as a preacher, someone who claims to see God everywhere he looks. But literature is full of preachers who have lost their faith, and also characters who show us that there are many possible roads to salvation, not just the ones most traveled by. Moses Todd, in Exit Kingdom, creates a map of these roads—between hope and despair, good and evil. "When you ain't got a destination, you find yourself going down all kinds of different roads" (p. 149), he tells us, the readers who by now have become his passengers as he drives us along through the wasteland.
The story Moses tells follows the journey of himself and his brother, Abraham. We learn that Moses "has been many things in his life—father, warrior, thief, wastrel," but that "Abraham Todd has been one thing only: degenerate. Moses watches his brother as a man who keeps a rabid dog penned in his own backyard" (p. 8). But the task of caring for and policing Abraham's baser instincts isn't enough for Moses anymore, in terms of providing a reason to keep on going. He decides, after years of aimlessness, to acquire a purpose. And thus the novel spells out its structure for us, illustrating the necessity of a through line: "It ain't quite livin without a purpose to shape the action" (p. 42), Moses tells us, and indeed, it ain't quite a novel without characters who want something and set out to get it. Exit Kingdom is very much a quest novel in structure, even as the nature of its quest is more theoretical than literal. In the context of a zombie novel, this is a quest for agency in a world without hope—a world in which too many decisions have been made for us already without our input or consent.
Almost instantly upon setting out to look for a purpose, Moses and Abraham discover a Mission building whose entrance itself resembles, to Moses, a holy book, "as though you were being asked to step into the very illuminated manuscript of faith" (p. 44). And it is there that they locate the precise nature of their new purpose when a monk named Ignatius tasks them with the protection of a "holy woman" known as the Vestal Amata. Ignatius asks them to deliver her to a Citadel in Colorado Springs, where she can be examined by those with better facilities and more advanced knowledge. For the Vestal Amata has a gift: she is immune to the attentions of the dead. Survival, here, is read as holiness. If she can survive where others fall, there must be of her something divine.
Holy she may be, but angel she is not. Early on, Moses asks her if she's an "authentic miracle of God's holy grace—or just a hoax," to which she replies with a "conspiring and downright lascivious" smile (p. 77). Faith is a terrain that needs to be explored within the rules of this new, dead world: nothing is as it seems. Similarly to how Alan Weisman's The World Without Us (2007) investigates an Earth devoid of humanity, Exit Kingdom shows us that same planet as though devoid not of humanity but of order. One particularly poignant moment is when the brothers, along with the Vestal, find the point of convergence between Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, and they realize how little these old boundaries matter. This is a time of recalibration. Everything has been rewritten. "Maybe she's holy in some ways and unholy in others," Moses wonders; "Or maybe holiness wears a new aspect these days" (p. 109).
These kinds of inversions are explored to their fullest extent in Exit Kingdom as Bell guides his characters into situations which might feel familiar to those readers already weaned on the tropes of zombie novels, films, and television shows; indeed, Exit Kingdom's narrative style is distinctly televisual, adopting as it does TV's episodic structure, a series of isolated quests and incidents occurring in the service of a larger arc. But Bell manages to imbue these familiar scenes and situations with maximum nuance and depth, choosing to dramatize the mundane more attentively than he does the story’s big action sequences, of which there are several, in particular an epic skirmish at the end of the novel worthy of the Walking Dead treatment, all technique and tactics. Yet even in the midst of describing a battle scene in the novel's most intricate set piece, Bell focuses on the language, elevating it to a kind of poetry:
Everywhere is the music of slaughter, shrill swords fifing their way clean through the air, the deep baritones of surprised death cries, the airy percussives of bodies falling to the ground and giving up their final appalled breaths. And who is the conductor? And who waves the baton? And who stitches together these crescendos of grotesque majesty? (p. 241)
The language is what holds the novel together, just as language is also one of its subjects. Even as Moses narrates his campfire story, he grows frustrated by "the prisoners of language" (p. 121), those things we can't describe fully with words: namely, beauty. He recalls the Vestal Amata's beauty like a holy thing, something beyond explanation. By now, the Vestal has become a symbol for Moses's faith, and he must preserve it or else lose it forever. It's a conundrum, then, when—once they arrive at the Citadel and he delivers the Vestal to the Pastor—her immunity to the dead, the zombies' refusal of her, is diagnosed as a scientific phenomenon rather than religious. She carries a disease—is basically one of the walking dead herself—and thus does not hold the interest of zombies who crave only living flesh. But in the end—"Disease or blessing, who can say?" (p. 282)—a disease can be read as adaptation, evolution, a bodily hunger for survival. The Vestal's divinity, according to the Pastor, lies not in her purpose as a cure for the blight on the world but in the fact that she is human:
Our desire to distil [soul from body] is a child's game. For good or bad, you are your appetites as well as your expiations. You are just as much what you would eat as what you do eat. Look around you. The dead risen. The body has its harmony, too. Where is the soul? . . . Right here. In our playful and meager guts. (p. 199)
Language is inadequate because it isolates us from our component parts. Soul, body: it's a danger to privilege one over the other.
Just as Cormac McCarthy pays little attention to the origin story of his apocalypse in The Road, focusing instead on his father/son protagonists, Bell is wise here to focus more on his humans than his monsters. As I mentioned before, the zombie terrain is oft-mined and, by now, riddled with trash. The strength of the metaphor, though, is that it's often useful scaffolding for stories about the power of humanity overcoming nearly impossible odds and arriving, eventually, at a kind of grace. Which isn't to say that someone needs to write the Light in August of zombie novels. The power of Bell's story, though, is such that it transcends and subverts the expectations of its sub-genre, universalizing its characters' plights by diverting attention from the zombies—the external threat—and focusing more on inner turmoil, those internal battles we all fight.
The question, then, is whether or not we need the zombies at all. The zombies here are pure metaphor, a mere nuisance to characters struggling through more immediately desperate circumstances. They provide a backdrop, a mood of despair and isolation and hopelessness, but they aren’t essential to the action, which is all based on conflicts between people who are more or less alive. By privileging his human characters, Bell ends up with a better novel than one which would have focused more directly on the shambling tactics of the undead and humanity’s subsequent, desperate run for cover. For, as Moses Todd would tell us, "The world is a grim and empty place. The appetites of the dead . . . ain't nothing to the icy hearts of living men" (p. 143).
Richard Larson's short stories have appeared in Subterranean, ChiZine, Strange Horizons, and many other venues. He also writes film criticism for Slant Magazine, in addition to reviewing books for Strange Horizons. Visit him online at http://www.rlarson.net.
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