Saying “This is a really nice moment” is a can’t-miss way to kill a moment, and directly addressing the philosophical questions at the heart of a story is a can’t-miss way to kill both the questions and the story. This, at any rate, is what is taught in creative writing classes, so we should be grateful that Bennett Sims, an Iowa graduate, must not have paid very close attention in workshop. Sims’ spectacular debut novel, A Questionable Shape, is ostensibly about zombies, but he is much less interested in chase scenes and infection countdowns than in using undeath to explore memory, home, family, love, and the question that unites much contemporary philosophy with the entire history of fiction: what makes a person a person rather than a zombie?
The novel begins in a period of calm, after an initial outbreak of the mysterious Undeath-causing disease has largely subsided and most of the living have gotten back to living. Most, but not all: Matt Mazoch thinks only of finding his father, who may or may not be zombie. In the opening pages we learn that the undead—not, in this version, particularly aggressive, though they do bite—“wander to nostalgically charged sites from their former lives,” sites otherwise known as “haunts.” Every day, Matt searches for his father in places that might have meant something to him—Matt’s childhood home, the park where he and his father played chess, the restaurants where his father, three hundred pounds before the outbreak, appeared to be trying to commit slow suicide by cholesterol. What exactly he plans to do if he finds his father is one of the novel’s major sources of suspense.
Matt’s partner in this quest is our narrator, the loquacious yet elusive Michael Vermalean. Vermalean first appears to be a Nick Carraway-style sidekick, and the pair remind us at various times of Vladimir and Estragon, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, and two actors who show up to star in a buddy cop movie after the end of cinema. Slowly, though, the story shifts focus to Vermalean’s own, possibly more troubling search. Vermalean tells us that at the beginning of the outbreak he was more scared than other survivors and on one night, when he saw a zombie, his fear turned into something else:
[The zombie’s] stillness—his total unresponsiveness to everything around him: the wind, the shadows, me—seemed ghostly, as though he occupied some sublime interstice between life and death, and nothing in this world could touch him. Could he perceive any of this? There was a great vacancy in his staring. He was present, but only as the manifestation of an absence. Neither here, nor not here. Neither a brain-damaged human, nor a murderous corpse. Nor even quite, an indeterminate mixture of the two. It seemed in this moment as though I could go on accreting neithers like this all night—as if I could stand here all night, frozen in apophatic paralysis—and still be no nearer to an understanding of what he was. Or of what it would be like to be him.
Vermalean’s desire to achieve empathy for the undead is overpowering and real, a beautiful, comic rendering of the book’s philosophy. The intellectualizing of “accreting neithers” and “apophatic paralysis” does not, after all, seem likely to take him closer to understanding what it is like to be undead, and it certainly takes him further from his very much living, beloved Rachel. Sims is too subtle a writer to make the philosophy solely farcical—this is not one of those novels with nothing to say other than “this guy is talking about Kant so he must be an idiot”—and many of Vermalean’s musings are provocative on their own terms, but the philosophy is often farcical, and even Vermalean recognizes that it is doomed: “Philosophy, which was supposed to teach me how to die, to prepare me for death, has left me utterly unprepared for undeath.” We wonder just how far Vermalean will go to know what it is like to be a zombie, and this plot thread makes us turn the pages faster than a scene of survivors frantically boarding up a farmhouse ever could. Vermalean’s thinking may not help him, but like most things that do not help us it certainly makes him human; it also makes him a terrific narrator.
Vermalean may be interested in what it is like to be a zombie, but Sims is ultimately interested in what it is like to be a person, and in our responsibilities to each other. Vermalean’s and Matt’s overlapping quests reach an improbably but authentically riveting climax during a dinner discussion of Giorgio Agamben’s concept of Homo Sacer, a human being without human rights, a “living dead man,” a concept that came to prominence in America in the wake of the War on Terror and the designation of prisoners as “enemy combatants.” What exactly constitutes a human being is a matter of great political urgency and great literary urgency, and it is exciting to have a novelist willing to think it through.