We are in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. An avalanche of novels, comics and films sometimes makes it seem that we spend most of our time contemplating zombies (when we are not thinking about vampires). AMC’s The Walking Dead, premiering Halloween night, and the film version of Max Brook’s runaway hit World War Z, likely coming in 2012, promises that masses of revenants will continue to be a cultural obsession.
Linda Wantanabe McFerrin’s new novel is yet more proof that the zombie is here to stay. In fact, she has reached backed before the zombie lore that George Romero created in Night of the Living Dead to the older version of the zombie, the creature created by humans in the context of Haitian vodun (“voodoo”) as a slave to a living master. McFerrin tells this tale in the Japanese context, with an often perfect evocation of Tokyo and Tokyo scenes. Added to the narrative mix are the Yakuza, a trip to Amsterdam, a peculiar love story and a shape-shifting ghoul. One chapter is beautifully drawn manga by Botan Yamada, a nice extra only available in the novel’s hard cover edition.
McFerrin centers her story on Erin, a beautiful young dancer and the barely acknowledged illegitimate daughter of a wealthy man with ties to the Japanese underworld. For reasons that only become clear later in the novel, Erin’s father and the yakuza want her dead and enlist a deadly, and dead sexy, yakuza soldier to be both her “bodyguard” and her assassin. Ryu become Erin’s lover along the way. Meanwhile, a ghoul who feeds on human flesh and can shape-shift into any form he eats, falls hard for Erin and transforms her into a zombie, a “live dead girl” that will be his love slave.
This eclectic mix of elements probably seems a bit irresistible. However, it’s likely that, a chapter or two in, you will find yourself able to resist even the most creative plot points. Most of the characters motivations are murky at best and there are sudden twists in the tale that seem to serve little purpose other than to provide a change of scene and scenery (such as a sudden trip to Amsterdam).
Worst of all for a book about zombies, McFerrin’s work is really only occasionally disturbing and never truly frightening. Moments of gross-out appear but these, strangely, have less to do with the supernatural than the sometimes demeaning descriptions of people and places. The character of Erin is never as engaging as the reader would like her to be and seems as flat before her zombification as after. Readers will find themselves looking forward to the moment she becomes “the live dead girl” and the story really gets moving. But even after her supernatural transformation Erin feels like exactly the same uninteresting character with some memory loss.
The general flatness of the characters seems of a piece with the sometimes clinical narrative style. Certain scenes are perfectly rendered, from Erin’s first sexual encounter with Ryu to her fateful visit to the Fugu shop. But we never get lost in this world because we never forget the author’s voice, piling detail upon detail. These are narrative worlds described rather than created. This is a major failing in a book that is both packed with the supernatural and what is supposed to feel like international intrigue.
Tokyo and Amsterdam are the most finely wrought locations but the author really lost me with her description of Haiti. The much-abused island is mainly presented as a place of smells and discomfort, while Amsterdam and Tokyo, in even their seedier aspects, are given a deeply evocative treatment. This coincides, unfortunately, with the novel’s rather simplistic portrayal of vodun, a religious system already much derided in American popular culture as a magic system of “voodoo dolls” (actually part of the western magical tradition that has been clamped on to vodun) and zombies.
A seemingly small, but almost constantly annoying, aspect of the novel is its use of footnotes throughout. Don’t get me wrong, as a pretty serious David Foster Wallace fan I am well aware of how this use of an academic scaffolding in fiction can add layer of irony and complexity to a story, suggesting a world behind and beyond the fiction piece while creating a strange kind of meta-narrative within it. But that’s not what McFerrin does here. These are footnotes in a dreadfully literal sense, giving the reader the straight, denotative meaning of unfamiliar terms. Occasionally, this does explain a word or concept that may be unfamiliar but it also prevents our full capitulation to the narrative, reminding of the artifice. At it’s worst, as when the author defines “ninja” for her readers, it seems patronizing and makes this feel like a piece of adolescent literature, which clearly it is not.
Looking at Dead Love as a whole, much of the book’s problems at first seem like failures of craftsmanship. I’m afraid the deeper issue is a failure of imagination. The intermixture of elements, from ninjas to voodoo, feels like a writer attempting to pack everything that could possibly be interesting to the reader into the novel. I was expecting vampires, pirates and perhaps a killer robot to show up at any moment. As filmmakers like Romero or comic writers like Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead) have shown, the unbelievable nature of the zombie opens up the possibility of telling stark tales that are more about human experience than the supernatural. Your time would be better spent revisiting their work than on Dead Love.