I stumbled onto Alden Bell’s The Reapers Are the Angels by accident while browsing my local bookstore. The cover promised apocalypse, zombies, and a 16 year-old girl, but the copies of Bell’s book were stacked suspiciously close to a truckload of Twilight novels. I can happily report that, in this case, folksonomy is coincidental: The Reapers Are the Angels is a great read and definitely not a zombie version of Bella’s dramas.
Bell’s (a.k.a. Joshua Gaylord) book is an absorbing read for many reasons. But, for me, the most compelling is the manic mashup energy that Bell unleashes to construct his narrative of young Temple’s journey through a zombie-infested, post-apocalyptic Dixie. As Temple, who was born P.Z. (post-zombie) and hence knows nothing but a world defined by creepers and diminishing humanity, travels through the Southland – – first in search of company and then on a mission to reunite another orphan with his family – – Bell’s narrative draws on a whole library of journey narratives. In the background, obviously, are The Odyssey, Dante’s Inferno, Heart of Darkness, The Wizard of Oz, etc. In the foreground, are more particular versions of the narrative – – Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the recent Zombieland, for instance. And, given Bell’s geography some even more local, chicken-fried versions of the Journey: Faulkner’s Light in August, the Coen brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou, and of course Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
The bustling roundabout for these inter-texts is Temple’s distinctive, yet familiar narrative voice. “God is a slick god,” Temple tells the reader in the novel’s opening lines. “She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe.” And, almost immediately, we’re dunked, zombies and all, into that rich vein of Southern speech that writers south of the Mason Dixon line have been mining since Augustus Baldwin Longstreet published his Georgia Scenes in 1835. As Temple narrates, we hear a voice of twangy, adolescent innocence and experience soaked, steeped, and filtered through Twain’s Huck, Faulkner’s Sarty Snopes, Harper Lee’s Scout Finch, Capote’s Joel Harrison Knox, Padgett Powell’s Simons Manigault, Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro, and countless other avatars of gritty, low-down, “free bird” authenticity.
It’s Bell’s powerful ability to dwell within this matrix of voices that makes The Reapers Are the Angels (to understand the title: check out Matthew 13:36-42) more than just Huckleberry Finn with Zombies. Bell brings a cherished, culturally canonized voice and narrative into contact with one of the ugliest, dirtiest, bloodiest, goriest, drive-in movie denizens of our time: the zombie flick. This is the real mashup: a Ree Dolly who wades through the pop cultural detritus (literally and figuratively) of Romero, Lucio Fulci, Dead Snow, Planet Terror, 28 Days Later, Resident Evil, and The Walking Dead. And, amazingly, The Reapers Are the Angels works – – as both a zombie narrative and a significant contribution to contemporary fiction.
No surprise here, perhaps. As the Russian Yoda of culture, Mikhail Bakhtin reminded us in Rabelais and His World, what we know now as “literature” started in the bawdy parodies, drinking songs, and scatological jokes of the Medieval carnival, a place where popular and canonical voices collided, mingled, and inter-married. The laughter of the carnival reflected a world in historical transition, and the forms and figures generated by carnival embodied and cultivated an emerging secular consciousness. A continent away, the American Yoda of culture, Kenneth Burke, described the Great Depression as the age of “gargoyles,” an era where social confusion and conflict generate “planned incongruity” and birth grotesque forms like Super-Realism and proletarian literature.
The mashup is the preferred cultural genre of historical shift and transformation. The mashup, like the carnival, the gargoyle, and the monster, is “the harbinger of category crisis.” The mashup violates cultural norms and boundaries, producing monstrous texts that swarm with semiotic excess and so evade and trouble our sense of cultural propriety. The mashup underscores – – with laughter, groans, and gasps – the insufficiency of old ways of doing cultural business and offers glimpses of new cultural orders and commerce. And, as Bakhtin reminds us, the mashup is as old as modernity itself.
Thanks to YouTube, GarageBand, Facebook, WordPress, and others, the mashup – – musical, visual, textual, syndicated – – is the chief, if not supreme genre of our contemporary “convergence culture.” I’d also venture that the mashup is one of our most important literary genres today. Writers like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Richard Kadrey, and a host of others, are reinventing serious fictional narrative by jamming together discordant literary and non-literary genres. Hard-boiled Chandler narrative meets steampunk alternative history meets contemporary geo-politics – – shazam! – – you’ve got a membership card for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union!
And so, to return to the zombie. Some might say that the zombie narrative simply reflects a kind of popular resignation where “it is easier to think of the total annihilation of humanity than to imagine a change in the organization of a manifestly unjust and destructive society.” There’s some truth (and pleasure) in that. But, the power and popularity of the zombie today might also reside in the zombie’s inherent mashup: neither living nor dead, the zombie inhabits a world between worlds, a place of terrifying ambivalence and confusion. The zombie landscape – – deserted buildings, empty highways, dark cubicles that shelter flesh-eating mouths and blank eyes – – is our hometown, but mashed up now with danger, despair, and paranoia. The zombie defamiliarizes everything and everyone, including our familiar cultural genres. And, in mashing up Huck and George (Romero), writers like Alden Bell are following through on that original, literary zombie manifesto of the mashup – – T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land. They’re coming to terms with the quicksand of our contemporary reality by fashioning “unreal cities” of prose and narrative out of “heaps of broken images.” Eliot’s zombie poem grimly eulogized the past even as it “modernized” contemporary poetry; today’s mashup gleefully mocks the present even as it invites us to play with the future.