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Just started reading this, and seriously, DO WHAT ERIC SAYS. MARK IT ON YOUR CALENDAR.
May 2013, mark it on your calendars. That’s when we’ll be releasing a debut novel by an exceptional new talent, Bennett Sims. The book is called A Questionable Shape and it’ll knock your socks off, guaranteed.
Bennett Sims has had fiction appear in A Public Space, Tin House, and Zoetrope: All-Story. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he currently teaches fiction at the University of Iowa, where he is a provost postgraduate visiting writer. [Editor’s note: he’s only 26!]
Here’s the story: Mazoch discovers an unreturned movie envelope, smashed windows, and a pool of blood in his father’s house: the man has gone missing. So he creates a list of his father’s haunts and asks Vermaelen to help track him down.
However, hurricane season looms over Baton Rouge, threatening to wipe out any undead not already contained and eliminate all hope of ever finding Mazoch’s father.
What Bennett Sims has accomplished with this, his very fine first novel, is to turn typical zombie fare on its head and deliver a wise and philosophical rumination on the nature of memory and loss.
In the following mini-interview we chat zombies, studying with David Foster Wallace, and studliness.
Q: With zombies or vampires or werewolves, there seem to be some unanimous across-the-board rules and general narrative expectations . What impressed me so much about A Questionable Shape was how you employed what would be token plot devices for other writers – specifically, reanimation – and used them to explore much grander questions about our own human experience and how we relate to one another. Was that part of your initial approach or attraction to the story, or did this come about through writing and revision?
Even before I began the novel, I was up to my elbows in the grand questions of undeath, since my undergrad thesis was a long essay on zombies. What I found was that ‘the zombie’ keeps cropping up in different discourses as a kind of limit figure of the human condition. So in mind-body philosophy and neuroscience, the zombie is a mascot for non-conscious perception (aka ‘blindsight’), the brain’s ability to respond to visual stimuli without conscious awareness. In both Haitian anthropology and political theory, the ‘living dead man’ is a victim of social death, a biological body that has been stripped of all civil rights. And in psychoanalysis, the phrase ‘return of the dead’ is a ready-to-hand metaphor for describing a wide swath of psychological phenomena, from repetition automatism and the return of the repressed to our experience of the uncanny.
So in answer to your question, yes, A Questionable Shape was always a questions novel. It grew out of that project fairly naturally, as a way of dramatizing these questions and making them meaningful for a set of characters. If your undead dad shuffles back to his house, do you say that he’s the ‘same’ person? Do you say that he’s a person at all? How can you know what he’s experiencing, and what are your ethical obligations to him? This is a supernatural problem to be faced with, but of course there are other, more familiar issues bound up with it: the ethics of euthanasia; old age and senility; mourning, memory, and mortality.
Q: Was it frightening or liberating to write a novel that includes zombies when zombies seem to be the new vampires?
More frightening than liberating. The risk of exhaustion, of cultural saturation, is a legitimate one. I was mindful of this from the moment I started working on the book, in mid-2008—and that was back when Walking Dead was still a graphic novel; when Left 4 Dead had not yet been released; and when Zone 1 was just a twinkle in Colson Whitehead’s eye. (I can still remember the buttock-clenching dread I felt in December ‘08, when I read The New Yorker’s Q&A with him. Regarding future projects, he said, ‘I have a bunch of book ideas—my long-neglected Benjamin Franklin bio, my magic-realism zombie epic, my history of zeppelins in America…’ ‘Pick zeppelins,’ I remember thinking, ‘pick zeppelins!’) In the years since, zombie narratives have only proliferated, and I wouldn’t blame any reader for being bored by them.
With that said, the overexposure has felt liberating at times as well. Part of the fun of the novel was to try to hash out a different thematics of undeath, a wider Venn diagram of undeath, and to show that there are other criteria for zombism beyond reanimation and cannibalism. Criteria like memory and nostalgia, hauntedness, obliviousness, obsession, regret. Zombies may be the new vampires, but once you adjust your definition of undeath, you realize just how rich and long-tailed the zombie tradition is. Night of the Living Dead is a zombie movie, but so is Vertigo. George Saunders’s ‘Sea Oak’ is a zombie story, but so is Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat.’ Ditto Dostoevsky’s ‘Bobok’; or Euripides’s The Bacchae; or the Orpheus myth.
Q: You studied at Pomona College with David Foster Wallace. What was that like?
It’s difficult to talk about, to be honest. Dave was (and remains) a tremendously important mentor for me. He was one of the advisors for my thesis, and when I began the novel after graduation, he was one of my ideal readers. I never even got to show him a chapter. Some of my classmates have written movingly about his generosity as a teacher. In their memorial reflections and essays, they’ve already left an eloquent record of what we all cherished in him. He really did write us five-page response letters for our manuscripts, and line edit us with a ruthless jeweler’s-loupe scrutiny, and hold hours-long meetings in his office, to counsel us through crises. In a pedagogical culture that condones the absentee writer-professor—who gives 10% to his students and saves 90% for his novel—Dave gave 100% to everyone. He took us seriously as writers, and, what’s more, he required us to take each other seriously as well. We all felt honored by that attention. We learned to work self-martyringly hard to deserve it.
Q: Most writers toil for many years and through many projects before they meet with any level of success. You’re 26. Your first story was published in A Public Space; your second in Zoetrope; and your third in this summer’s issue of Tin House. In college football country, you’re what we’d refer to as a ‘stud.’ Does that type of immediate success create added pressure or stress?
Good Lord. I wish that were the kind of stress I felt. I wish that when I sat down to write, I was thinking, ‘All right, you stud. You stallion. This sentence better be up to snuff. You were in Tin House!’ But the fact is, I still just feel like a failure every day: less like a stud than a spavined lordotic wreck, whinnying for John Wayne to shoot me. The problem with writing is that every page is its own pressure cooker, regardless of how many pages you’ve written (or even published) beforehand. No matter what, you’re always going to be banging your head against the limitations of your language and your inferiority to your forebears. It’s a minute-by-minute exercise in humiliation and shame. So far, I’ve had incredible luck in finding good homes for my stories. They’ve benefited from the input of whip-smart editors, and been printed alongside some supremely humbling company. But the stresses of writing are still the inherent ones, the daily ones, because it’s never my author bio who’s writing. The Bennett at my desk isn’t ‘a fiction writer living in Iowa City, whose stories have appeared in A Public Space, Tin House, and Zoetrope.’ He’s more like ‘a freelance idiot living in anxiety, whose story is about to appear in the trash can.’
If you’re a bookseller or are affiliated with the media, and are interested in receiving an advance copy of A Questionable Shape, write to eric[at]twodollarradio.com.