Tim Lanzendörfer, Books of the Dead: Reading the Zombie in Contemporary Literature (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2018), 222 pp.
Tim Lanzendörfer’s Books of the Dead: Reading the Zombie in Contemporary Literature is a very ambitious study on zombie fiction and due to his clever selection of the books discussed also an immensely enjoyable read. In his introduction, he lays the theoretical groundwork for his analysis of the literary zombie as a cultural trope and character and states as his rationale for writing a book on zombie fiction that “while zombies have proliferated in all media […] comparatively little attention has been paid to the zombie in fiction” (6). His observation that the zombie as a twentieth-century phenomenon can be defined in terms of an empty signifier reflecting contemporary social problems summarizes state of the art zombie theory. In his introduction, Lanzendörfer gives a comprehensive, almost too meticulously detailed, overview of the zombie in film, comics, and literature—from George R. Romero to Max Brooks and from the zombie as an undead laborer to the modern flesh-eating monster and zombie-consumer.
For his analysis of zombie fiction, he chooses a selection of zombie novels, zombie mash-up fiction, and also the comic series The Walking Dead. His first chapter is on socio-political anxieties expressed through the figure of the zombie in World War Z, and he concludes that the novel, which “nods toward the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic” (28)—and, as we now know now, also toward the COVID-19 pandemic—provides a utopian glimpse at a world in which neoliberal capitalism is partially overcome, but then replaced by a somewhat disappointing social-democratic capitalism. The second chapter, “Pariah and Dying to Live” discusses novels by Bob Fingerman and Kim Paffenroth and shows how the zombie as Other serves as a utopian catalyst bringing together highly different individuals as a functioning community. The chapter also zooms in on topical concerns by asking “what is the remaining function of the city in the absence of consumerism and the human being” (Antonio Sanna qtd. in Lanzendörfer 55)—the same question has actually been raised by journalists about the Big Apple during the 2020 COVID-19 induced lockdown. The comic book version of The Walking Dead is the subject of the third chapter. Lanzendörfer proposes a fresh reading of the series based on the issues of endings and the everyday, arguing that the comic’s refusal to provide an ending reveals postmodern narrative strategies combined with a postmodern understanding of the everyday that infuses a sense of loss and bewilderment into the quotidian. He claims (even before the coronavirus pandemic) that the fears alluded to in the series are symptomatic of our time. The series, perhaps prophetically, provides as one solution to the apocalypse a return to a new normal reminiscent of, but also quite distinct from, an elusive pre-apocalyptical everyday.
Chapter four develops a highly construed argument (that might be a bit less convincing than the reasoning in the previous chapters), claiming zombie mash-up fiction based on Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice can perform a “useful literary and social critique” (94). The author contends that zombie parodies (the term he prefers to mash-up) such as Seth Grahame Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Steve Hockensmith’s Dreadfully Ever After and Dawn of the Dreadfuls criticize Austen’s politics of gender, class, and race and also target an uncritical consumption of her heteronormative happy endings in marriage. The fifth chapter offers another close reading of the presentation of gender in zombie novels. The discussion forgoes an in-depth theoretical approach presumably either because gender (performance) theory has become such a well-known critical approach or because the novels’ gender constructions do not require an approach that goes beyond close reading and some references to post-feminism. Lanzendörfer argues that a zombie apocalypse in fiction offers the chance to reconceptualize gender relationships, but then does not deliver that promise. He observes that long form narratives often confirm heteronormativity, whereas shorter forms are more open-ended and also more open to an indeterminate future for romantic heterosexual relationships. The sixth chapter thematizes race and post(capitalism) and probes the truth-value of a statement from Pariah about race in the zombie apocalypse: “The only races that mattered now where humans versus zombies. Skin color was passé” (Bob Fingerman qtd. in Lanzendörfer 161). According to Lanzendörfer, the answer to be gleaned from Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (the book chiefly discussed in the chapter), is that the novel has post-racial tendencies and gives race enough room to matter only if “it is already assumed to matter” (171). In the post-apocalyptic New York of the novel, class has become more important than race because it is instrumental in reestablishing neoliberalist capitalism.
In the coda to Books of the Dead, Lanzendörfer addresses the problem of the literariness of zombie novels. Perhaps a bit surprisingly, throughout the entire study, he does not engage with the literary qualities of the novels by means of quotations of longer passages and/or dialog from the books. This might be owing to the rather simplistic writing style of some of the novels which often lack “markers of literariness” (187). Thus, in spite of his discussion of narrative strategies, the novels fail to “come alive” for the reader. Nevertheless, in his coda, Lanzendörfer argues that zombie fiction, since it performs cultural work, features a different type of literariness. This is not an entirely new argument about genre fiction, but making a case for it by chiefly referring to Whitehead’s Zone One (which is also “literary” in the conventional sense), he states it well. However, it remains to be seen if this actually works for the genre at large.
The book’s main argument about zombie literature initially seems conservative in that it explores the by now “standard assertion” that the zombie is an apt indicator of contemporary social ills. This strong focus at times overshadows other, more productive thematic concerns of his study, such as his discussion of the (post-)apocalyptic, utopian, and ultimately also literary qualities of contemporary zombie fiction. At the end of his book, he finally brings to the fore the important idea “that the zombie is very much passing upward and onward, into the future rather than the past” (183). Zombie fiction thus, as he claims, due to its orientation towards the future even has the potential to revolutionize the novel: “In denying the realism of realist fiction, in shifting discourse away from the generally more systemically affirmative concerns of identity, trauma, affect, and other largely individualizing issues […] [it] becomes a form of cultural expression that […] through the necessary possibilities of the zombie, ambiguous, undead, and yet enabling […] talks about what society is like, and how we may imagine changing it” (191). While it certainly is good German academic style to save the best for last, I would have liked to have seen this most important insight clearly stated as a thesis in the book’s introduction.
Monika Müller (Ruhr-Universität Bochum)