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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Day by Day Armageddon

When I was in the 8th grade, my English teacher pulled one of those Lord of the Flies-style writing experiments on us. I have this feeling that the background of this writing experiment had something to do with House of Stairs, which we read at about the same time. House of Stairs is an oddball little YA fiction which is about a group of children being 'sperimented on by a totalitarian regime which includes, I believe, a taxonomy of personal ethical states which caused a fair amount of consternation. (I should really reread that, because a lot of it has drifted in the intervening *coughcough* years.) 

Anyway, the writing experiment had us pretending to be on a plane going on some kind of exchange program, but then the plane crashed and we were all stuck on a desert island without any adult supervision. We were split up into groups, or I think more accurately, we split ourselves into groups, and then went wandering off in search of food or shelter or whatever. The teacher would periodically lob pieces of paper with events scrawled on them - a storm, or an attack of bees or something - that we would have to incorporate into our teen survivalist narratives as we wrote furiously about how we found a pineapple tree so we wouldn't starve tonight. (Editorial comment from the teacher: pineapples grow on bushes.) 

We never did split into factions and try to kill each other, at least within the confines of the survivalist teen story playing out in class, though I think it would be accurate to say we were already split into factions and trying to kill each other in real life. The teacher - whose name I'm struggling to remember - would explain certain things in her lobbed paperballs - like how we were all suffering from some kind of poisoning because we weren't boiling our water, and then we'd duly figure out that we should be boiling our water and incorporate it in our stories. It's kind of embarrassing how we just went for the most obvious physical solution to whatever trouble she tossed our way, totally ignoring the very real, very social-combat stuff we were living day-to-day, but then we were 13, and she was kind of a psycho for trying to get us to kill each other fictionally. The writing experiment ended with Zuckerman getting eaten by sharks after going mad, and then we got rescued. My frame narrative was that I was in a psych ward, having gone nuts after my experience on the island. I'm sure my story was hugely insensitive to actual mental illness, but then it doesn't exist anymore, except as a half-memory, so I'm safe. 

I thought of this teenage writing experiment when I was reading Day by Day Armageddon, being the point of this anecdote. Our possibly unnamed narrator - though I wasn't paying close enough attention to key on a name-drop - starts a diary on New Year's Day after being sent back to San Antonio on leave from the US Navy. He chats a bit about Christmas with his folks in Alabama (or possibly Arkansas; I can't differentiate between the two because I'm a sucky Northerner) then sketchy stuff starts happening in China, then the US. Narrator dude seems to have a preternatural sense of when to fortify the house, like someone were lobbing authorial information from on high, which he does with an outrageous attention to detail. I believe he even specifies the size of drill bit when he screw-guns some plywood up on the lower windows. 

Narrator dude - forthwith to be ND - hangs out in his house a lot, obsessively watching tv, trying to get through to his folks, and rationing his MREs. The walking dead start hanging around the house, so he dispatches them with fire in a way that seems like it would end in the neighborhood getting torched, but whatever. He eventually meets up with a neighbor - an engineer, you know - and then they picaresque around the zombie apocalypse hijacking planes from small airports and trying to find a safe place to be. ND and neighbor (Dave?) end up on an island for a while, which seems like it might be sweet, but then the island is big enough to have a shitton of walking dead on it, but too small to have much in the way of necessary foodstuffs and whatnot. 

So. Before I start and-then and-then and-then-ing like this novel, I should probably pull back and talk about some higher level shit. I read the first maybe third of this novel a half dozen years ago, when Bourne was writing it as a serial internet narrative thing. This book was one of the early Internet book phenomenons, back when such a thing was notable. (And I'm using the term "phenomenon" pretty loosely, but his blogging did result in for realz publication, which was something back in the day. Maybe it is still notable; I don't know.) I didn't want to go on with it at the time, because it's so...hokey? straightforward? but then I recently decided to check out the really pulp edges of the zombie genre, and here I am. 

The shitty editing and overall bollocks of this novel can be chalked to its diary format, which makes me a little resentful of the diary format. Is it fair to give embarrassing grammar a pass just because the book is supposed to be a diary, and it's not like people bother with grammar all that much when they don't think anyone is watching? I'm going with no, because despite the cutesy intentionality of all the scribbles and underlining, typos is typos, and those are some fucking typos. That said, this was a delightfully wonky read written by someone who obviously knows his way around various hardware. I'm going to guess that Bourne himself is a military dude just like ND, and there's a lot of really detailed descriptions of guns & ammo, and a refreshingly sensible take on how things might work, or not, in the zombie apocalypse. He calculates head shot radios and amount of ammunition left. He nerds out on tech. 

There are zero characters - not even ND, who is more a collection of MacGuyver-like skills than a person - but the narrative occasionally slips up into something like a voice. ND has ticks, like the phrase "no joy" when something goes wrong, but he's pretty squeamish about emotions. Neighbor-possibly-Dave has to kill his wife, and starts bugging out emotionally for a while, and while ND notes this, he doesn't do anything to correct it. It just sort of works its way out conveniently without any comment. Various chapters end with the question, "why am I living?" Which, good one, because other than a few brief moments where things aren't shit, there's not much to live for other than gun-cleaning and food-sourcing. Even the action scenes are bloodless, and often rushed to the point of not registering. 

So, this was fun to read on a hangover Sunday, but it's not, like, good on any kind of technical level. Cool, arresting images are squandered, like the zombie on a crucifix thing which might be becoming a trope, and was dealt with insanely awesomely in Zombie in a Penguin Suit (Question: what's black and white and red all over? Answer: AHHHHH.) A number of events parallel This Dark Earth, but that has a ton more style, and actually engages the diary format in one of its sections as a device. (But Wittgenstein’s Mistress blows everything out of the water in terms of post-apocalyptic diary format, not that it's even fair to mention.) I don't really care where this goes, because I have no one to invest in, but it was fun while it lasted. It's almost refreshing to read something so little interested in the questions of what makes us human and how to construct a reasonable society in zombie fiction. I'll just be here running the numbers and cleaning my guns.

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