In the afterword to this sixth book, Aleksandar Hemon dedicates a word of thanks to his agent for keeping a straight face ‘when I told her I’d written a book she’d known nothing about’. I doubt she kept it for long, because one of the many ways in which The Making of Zombie Wars differs from Hemon’s other work is that it is dreadfully, wrigglingly, antisocially funny: the sort of book that’s difficult to read in public without undignified honks of laughter. Hemon’s work often crackles with humour, but it’s never been this uproarious — and it would be a stony-hearted reader indeed who made it through his last publication, The Book of My Lives (2013), and specifically its closing essay on the death of his daughter, without being reduced to a snivelling puddle. He is, clearly, a creature of opposites.
The Making of Zombie Wars circles lugubriously around the lives and entanglements of Joshua Levin, an aspiring screenwriter living in Chicago at the time of the Iraq invasion in 2003. Josh ekes out a living teaching English as a second language to a bunch of expatriate Slavs who arrive at every session and sit facing him ‘like a jury that had already reached its grim verdict’. In the time away from school he haunts the local Coffee Shoppe, reading Spinoza, poking at his laptop and jotting down appalling ideas for movies.
Josh’s dad has cancer; his Japanese girlfriend wants him to move in; a beautiful Bosnian student with a psychopathic husband has taken a shine to him; and meanwhile Stagger, his insane, samurai-sword-wielding, Gulf-war-veteran landlord, has taken to breaking in at unusual times to sniff his underwear in secret.
Josh aspires to literary salvation by way of Zombie Wars, a script which imagines the US government turning immigrants into zombies to use as slave labour, but the cosmos has other ideas. He is, in fact, headed towards the kind of narrative that Hemon drily sums up as ‘The Abasement of Joshua Levin, by Yahweh Asshole’.
Hemon knows he’s working with familiar elements, and that the strains of comic-Jewish family kvetching, Big Lebowski-like buddy comedy and satire on Hollywood ambition that mingle in his novel are each so well-established as to be almost genres in themselves. What distinguishes them here, besides the familiar exiled Bosnians whose obscure and unnameable sadnesses drift through this Bosnian-American’s novel, is the quietly sidelong way that he has with his second language: the protagonist drinks a dreadful wine that ‘burned his interiority’, a US president has ‘button eyes lit up with amateurish subterfuge’, someone eating rare lamb is ‘torturing his undead meat’. There’s plenty like this, and much of it is gold. It’s a new direction for Hemon, but one well worth following.