With Comedic Touch, 'Zombie Wars' Tackles Impact Of Real Violence

With Comedic Touch, 'Zombie Wars' Tackles Impact Of Real Violence

6:25pm May 04, 2015
Promo image option 1
Emily Jan / NPR
  • Promo image option 1

    Emily Jan / NPR

  • Aleksander Hemon's other books include The Lazarus Project, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award, and The Book of My Lives.

    Aleksander Hemon's other books include The Lazarus Project, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award, and The Book of My Lives.

    Velibor Bozovic / Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Night of the Living Dead director George Romero once told NPR his movies have always been less about zombies, and more about humans and the mistakes they make.

The same rings true for Aleksandar Hemon's darkly funny new novel The Making of Zombie Wars. It centers around a guy named Joshua Levin — a hapless screenwriter, stuck in a rut until a series of events propel him to write a screenplay, Zombie Wars, about a zombie apocalypse. The working script is intercut with Joshua's unfortunate adventures, which include an affair with a Bosnian refugee, encounters with her violent husband and a surprise visit by a psychotic, samurai sword-wielding landlord.

All the characters have survived a real war, in some way or another — except Josh.

Hemon, who lived through the Bosnian war himself, says the privilege of avoiding big problems — whether it's war or zombies — is at the heart of the story.

"That's the advantage and disadvantage of, you know, growing up in America — is that it's easy to think that everything is far away from us here. That bad things happen over there," he tells NPR's Arun Rath. "Every once in a while bad things cross the ocean or fly from elsewhere and then we are in shock.

"And so I wanted to throw Joshua into a situation [in] which he would have to contend with all the unexpected possibilities."


Interview Highlights

On Josh's obsession with the zombie apocalypse, instead of real conflicts

There is a fascinating aspect to American culture whereby all the world conflicts and insecurities and that kind of collective subconscious mind is processed through these Hollywood plots and stories. I'm sure there is a number of Ph.D. theses or books about why there was a proliferation of superhero movies in the past 20 years or so — where this fantasy superpower comes from or how it is related to the fantasy of being the superpower in the world after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And whether that is related to insecurities that Americans might have about being the biggest and the most powerful country in the world or an overabundance of security about that. Other countries and culture do not quite process their own anxieties the same way.

On how violence finds a way to the main character

The fact of the matter is that there is no space in this country or any other country untouched by history and its violence. In the spring of 2003, when this book takes place, the United States was invading Iraq. And so it was everywhere already, this historical violence or the history of violence that he gets engaged with. ...

I have lived here for 23 years and in those 23 years I've never been detached from the experience that defined my life and many others — that is, the experience of the Bosnian war. So to isolate yourself from history requires tremendous effort and it's very easy to fail at that effort. And I wanted to, again, to put Joshua in a situation where he simply couldn't get away with it anymore.

On the characters who have confronted war

That kind of experience does not elevate you to different moral ground at all. In fact, what wars do — and that's part of the point of the book and I hope that's also funny — is that, war damages everyone. The Iraq invasion damaged us all in horrible ways. I mean, that's so evident. And nevermind Iraq and Iraqi people — how damaged they are after all that.

But to think that somehow you can do it and everything will be all right after it, that's just crazy.

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Transcript

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Welcome to a night of total terror.

(SCREAMING)

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The 1968 classic - "Night Of The Living Dead." Director George Romero once told me that his zombie movies have always been less about zombies and more about the humans and the mistakes that they make. The same is true for Aleksandar Hemon's darkly funny new novel, "The Making Of Zombie Wars."

ALEKSANDAR HEMON: The main character is Joshua Levin, who is a hapless amateur screenwriter. And one of his problems is that he has a lot of ideas but never follows through. But then through an unfortunate set of circumstances, he gets into trouble, which somehow pushes him into continuing to write a movie script called "Zombie Wars."

RATH: The working script of "Zombie Wars" is intercut with Joshua's unfortunate adventures, which include an affair with a Bosnian refugee, her violent husband and a psychotic samurai sword-wielding landlord. All of these characters have survived a real war in one way or another, except Josh. Author Aleksandar Hemon, who lived through the Bosnian war himself, says this privilege of avoiding big problems, whether it's war or zombies, is at the heart of this story.

HEMON: Well, that's the advantage and disadvantage of, you know, growing up in America is that it's easy to think that everything is far away from us here, that bad things happen over there. Every once in a while bad things cross the ocean or fly from elsewhere and then we are in shock. And so I wanted to throw Joshua into a situation which he would have to contend with all the unexpected possibilities.

RATH: With these references to the Holocaust, the Bosnian war - this is set in 2003, the beginnings of the Iraq war are happening. With all of this turmoil, Joshua's imagination is consumed with the zombie apocalypse, though - with this fantasy world.

HEMON: Well, there's a fascinating aspect to American culture whereby, you know, all the world conflicts and insecurities and that kind of collective subconscious mind is processed through these Hollywood plots and stories. So, you know, I'm sure that there's a number of Ph.D. theses or books about why there was a proliferation of superhero movies, you know, in the past 20 years or so - where this fantasy superpower comes from or how it is related to the fantasy of being the superpower in the world after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And whether that's related to insecurities that Americans might have about being the biggest and the most powerful country in the world or, you know, an overabundance of security about that.

Other countries, other cultures do not quite process their own anxieties the same way. Here there are a lot of narratives where these insecurities, these subconscious anxieties come through in various ways. And they come through triumphantly. Heroes with superpowers, superheroes, grand cosmic conflicts and so on. The scale is astonishing.

RATH: This character, he does have - I'll leave some of the plot details out - but the violence of the world does find a way to get to him ultimately.

HEMON: The fact of the matter is that there is no space in this country or any other country untouched by history and its violence. And, you know, in the spring of 2003, when this book takes place, the United States was invading Iraq. And so it was everywhere already, this historical violence or the history of violence that he gets engaged with.

But then with all the people coming from all over the world, the connectedness of American space, American culture is never ceasing.

I have lived here for 23 years. And in those 23 years I've never been detached from the experience that defined my life and many others - that is, the experience of Bosnian war. So to isolate yourself from history requires tremendous effort and it's very easy to fail at that effort. And I wanted to, again, to put Joshua in a situation where he simply couldn't get away with it anymore.

RATH: So Aleksandar, do you think that we as a culture - do you think we're naive Americans?

HEMON: No, I don't think that - I don't think it's naivety. I think it's sort of a deliberate, enjoyable self-delusion - many other people strive towards that. They just can't sustain it. It's part of a privilege of being American - is that with the expanse - with the physical expanse, but also a cultural expanse - a lot of people just find - try to find a corner where they could hide from all of it. Many of us who could not hide, you know, had to turn toward it and confront it. But I don't think it's naivety. It's a symptom of privilege.

RATH: Because the people who haven't lived with that privilege in the book, the Bosnians that he interacts with, they're not necessarily more admirable than Josh at the same time.

HEMON: Of course not. That kind of experience does not elevate you to different moral ground at all. In fact, what wars do - and that's part of the point of the book and I hope that's also funny - is that war damages everyone. The Iraq invasion damaged us all in horrible ways. I mean, that's so evident. And never mind Iraq and Iraqi people - how damaged they are after all that. But to think that somehow you can do it and then everything will be alright after it, that's just crazy.

RATH: Aleksandar Hemon is the author of "The Making Of Zombie Wars." Thanks very much.

HEMON: Thank you. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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