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Aleksandar Hemon’s New Novel Tackles Zombies

The MacArthur ‘genius’ gives zombies the brainy treatment in his madcap new novel.

Aleksander Hemon
The writer channeling his subject   Photo: Dave Rentauskas; Photo Assistants: Joe Becerra and Braden Nesin; Makeup: Nora Hess; Wardrobe: Jennifer Salim; Clothing: Courtesy of Vintage Underground

“I wanted to write this book differently, because I get easily bored with myself and the way I do things,” says Aleksandar Hemon, sitting in a small office at his shared writers’ studio, nestled among auto repair shops on a stretch of North Broadway. He’s talking about his latest novel, The Making of Zombie Wars. “It’s easy to fall, if you write, into these habits that seem necessary, but they’re not really: I write in longhand, and I drink coffee in the morning. I have to have this and that. That can lead to a kind of deadening of the mind.”

Consider Hemon’s mind undead, then: Zombie Wars is a raucous, hilarious book that marks a departure for the 50-year-old author, known for his lyrical explorations of the immigrant experience in America (Nowhere Man, The Book of My Lives). It tells the story of Joshua, a frustrated ESL teacher in Chicago writing a screenplay for a movie called Zombie Wars. The book was born of procrastination. In 2009, Hemon was teaching at Washington University in St. Louis and was avoiding reading students’ work. “To not feel guilty, I wrote a story.” He finished it in six hours and sent it to The New Yorker, where he publishes often. But when his editor asked him to revise the piece, Hemon realized he wanted to expand it.

To develop it, the MacArthur “genius” and National Book Award finalist took a screenwriting class at Chicago Filmmakers. It was research, he reasoned, for a book about a screenwriter. The resulting work became the bones of a novel, leaving Hemon only to “flesh it out.” His phrase is especially apt: The book interweaves events in Joshua’s life with pages from the script he’s writing, a gory action flick about an insurgence of the undead. The Making of Zombie Wars came together over a period of about five years; Hemon was busy with other work, including the 2013 essay collection The Book of My Lives.

Hemon’s writing has never been overly serious, but in describing the outlandish romantic and familial misfortunes that befall Joshua, his new book is deadly funny. Hemon’s wry jokes come out in perfectly turned sentences: “In addition to smoke and cologne, he exuded shapeless contempt for weakness.” The sad-sack protagonist, considering why his much-better-put-together girlfriend keeps him around, suspects it might be “so he could make her feel better when she needed it, a winning combination of a pet and a dildo.”

Despite the offbeat subject matter, Hemon, who was born in Sarajevo and has lived in the United States since 1992, sticks with the themes of migration, violence, and loneliness that have long interested him. Like his last novel, 2008’s The Lazarus Project, this one takes place against a backdrop of the recent American military misadventures overseas—specifically the American invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. Joshua’s landlord is an unhinged veteran of the Gulf War; members of his screenwriting class debate whether Saddam Hussein had anything to do with 9/11.

“We were not good at that time as a country, as a nation,” explains Hemon. “No one came out unscathed; no one was undamaged.” He thinks that zombies, as faceless, terrorizing hordes, give body to the amorphous fears that inspire prowar, nativistic, and anti-immigrant sentiments in Americans. “You can see how that could operate as an allegory,” he says. “The voracious organisms without mind and language come to endanger the American way of life. It so easily slips into the American right-wing fantasy about immigrants: They’re nothings who come to fuck us up.” And yet, he stresses, the book is meant to be “deliberately funny, not inadvertently funny.”

Zombies intrigue Hemon intellectually, but on a pop culture level, he’s a little cooler on the subject. “I just wanted to make up stuff for Joshua’s mind,” he says, “to have Joshua come up with these ideas.”

Nonetheless, while writing the book, Hemon saw Zombieland—“not for zombies, but for Bill Murray.” He also watched World War Z, but only because he thought that it might contain scenes similar to what he was writing and worried that “no one will believe me that I came up with that on my own.” In the middle of the screening in Evanston, the entire multiplex lost power, and Hemon and his fellow filmgoers “tottered out of the movie theater in these dark hallways,” he recalls. “Everyone thought, What if this is the beginning?”

 

Zombies Go Highbrow

‘Theories of International Politics and Zombies’ by Daniel W. Drezner

Theories of International Politics and Zombies

By Daniel W. Drezner
Photos: Courtesy of the publishers

The Tufts professor poses one main question in his 2011 book: How would different international political groups react if the dead rose up and began feasting on the living?

 

‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

By Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Austen’s beloved characters are knife-wielding warriors facing a zombie invasion in Grahame-Smith’s enormously popular 2009 tale.

 

‘Zone One’ by Colson Whitehead

Zone One

By Colson Whitehead

Raising intellectual questions and in sardonic prose, this 2011 novel explores the effects of a zombie invasion in Manhattan.

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