"Zombie," Joyce Carol Oates

Pros: Unusual; effective; strong
Cons: Most definitely not for everyone! A little long and unrelenting
Rating: 4 out of 5

First published 7/6/2001

This is my second Joyce Carol Oates book. I know it’s more than a little early to be making generalizations, particularly given the sheer volume of material she puts out. But there are some very definite similarities between these two books (“Zombie” and “Foxfire”), so I can’t help drawing some temporary parallels. I’m curious to see whether they hold true at all for the other Oates books I have on my shelf.

Smiling to see how, when light moves, light you hold in your hand, bright as starlight you make shadows leap. The shadows are there all along. BUT YOU MAKE THEM LEAP.

Length

First, both books left me feeling that they went on for too long. Neither one was particularly easy to read, and I felt very worn out by the end of each. This, even though “Zombie” only took me about 3 or 4 hours to read. It’s just 181 pages long, in a reasonably large typeface. Not that books have to be easy to read; I like books that tackle difficult subjects. But these are tiring to read. They make use of a certain repetition of style that can wear on you after a while.

Point of View

Second, both books were told in the first person from the point of view of a rather interesting character. More than that, they were both told completely and utterly in that narrator’s voice, complete with the weird typographical quirks, verbal quirks, and so on. In “Foxfire,” the narrator tended to run-on sentences and ALL-CAPS SLOGANS. In “Zombie” the narrator tends to odd hand-drawn pictures, gratuitous ampersands and partial sentences:

Phone rang & it was Mom. Asked how I was & I said. Asked about my classes at Dale Tech & I said. Asked about my sinuses & I said.

You can see how this perfectly conveys a lot of tone and personality. You can probably also tell that after a while of reading things like this, you might be ready to scream. The fact that Ms. Oates can so thoroughly get into the mind of a character like this is an awesome ability; not once does the narrator’s voice slip, in either book. But in some ways I think she gets into her characters’ voices too well.

Oh, Yes – The Plot

“Zombie” is not an easy book to read on certain other levels as well: the narrator character is a sexual predator who commits some very gruesome acts. “Zombie” lacks much of the over-the-top character of the violence in “American Psycho,” while retaining that book’s ability to get inside the mind of a violent murderer. (And frankly, I think Oates’ characterization felt more “true” than Ellis’ did.) There’s a lot of very frank language in here, as well as a number of very explicit acts of sex and violence. If you don’t want to read this sort of thing, then don’t read this book.

Beyond that, however, this book does make for a very interesting character study. We follow Quentin through his meetings with his parole officer, his group therapy, his individual therapy, and his work as caretaker for his grandmother’s old house. In particular we see his interactions with his family – overbearing older sister Junie, worrying mother, strict and unforgiving father, and overly generous (or is she?) grandmother. I don’t think there’s a person in this family who lacks for emotional problems. Oddly, it isn’t all that difficult to see where Quentin comes from, and it’s an all-too-familiar place.

This is a very well-written book, and quite probably deserving of its 1996 Bram Stoker Award simply for its depth and intensity. That doesn’t mean it’s for everyone, however. If you can stomach the sex and violence, and if you can handle the unrelenting voice of it, give it a try. It won’t take up more than an evening.

I turn to her not-surprised and say, like this is the most natural reply to an asshole question, I am the presence standing here at this juncture of Time and Space – who else?

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