Friday, November 19, 2010

Review - The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell

Short review: The story of the depressing life of a young girl living in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse.

Temple flees zombies,
Has a ghurka knife fetish,
And dies anyway

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: The Reapers Are the Angels is a post-apocalyptic story set in a world where zombies have killed off most of humanity and the remnants are left to try to make their way in a world filled with hostile, brain eating "slugs" (as the zombies are called in the book). The twist in the book is that the protagonist, a teenage girl who goes by the name "Temple", was born after the zombie takeover and collapse of civilization. Temple is tough, carrying and almost fetishizing a Gurkha knife, while having a very different vision of herself than the many people who want to dress her up like a doll do. The book will remind readers of McCarthy's The Road, but it is told with a narrative style that reminded me of McInerny's Bright Lights, Big City. Other influences seem to be Apocalypse Now, Dhalgren, and even the X-Files episode Home.

The story is pretty basic: Temple starts in the Florida Keys, begins moving when the "slugs" catch up with her, and drifts about the American southeast stumbling into various plot points. She seeks refuge in a large fortress in Georgia where she kills a man who tries to rape her, which sets his brother Moses Todd on a quest to kill her. She picks up a mentally impaired man and sets about trying to find him a safe place to stay, a relationship laden with healthy dollops of symbolism as he becomes a kind of surrogate child to replace the family she lost and that she apparently could never have even if she decided to. She runs across the Grierson family living in seeming denial of the reality around them who reminded me of the de Marais family in Apocalypse Now and the Richards family in Dhalgren. She tangles with a collection of inbred mutant hillbillies who reminded me of the Peacock family in the X-Files episode Home. Temple drifts west, she drifts south, on the way securing something of a purpose to her wandering, but mostly just making her way across a hostile countryside, spurning both refuge and assistance on her blood-drenched journey.

The novel seems to want to apply literary sensibilities to the typical zombie tale, and this creates an interesting work, but also results in some problems. Bell's writing flows very well, allowing the reader to eat through pages quite quickly. But he has a tendency to overwrite at times, giving very flowery descriptions for much of the action. When characters for whom this would be suitable are about - such as the aging southern belle Mrs. Grierson who spends her days teaching her younger son to play the piano while being waited on by a patient staff of house servants - this fits the book. But when the book focuses on hillbilly mutants, weathered hunters, or even Temple herself, this language seems wrong for the story. The story is told almost entirely from Temple's perspective, which makes the story quite linear, but this turns out to be something of a strength, as it casts an air of uncertainty about the actions of those around her. If a person leaves Temple's sight, the reader also loses sight of them, a device that makes Moses Todd seem much scarier than her would have been if his actions tracking Temple about were detailed. Where the story is strongest is in the scenes of interactions between the characters - Temple overlooking a destroyed city while talking with James Grierson, Temple's friendship with the hunter Lee she meets on the road, Temple's impromptu date in Texas, and her bizarre relationship with Moses Todd. Unfortunately, for much of the book Temple is either on her own or paired with the mute imbecile Maury, limiting the potential for substantial interaction.

However, the first substantial problem I had with the book is the lack of explanation for anything which leads to fairly weak world-building. Given that the story is told almost entirely from Temple's perspective, and she was born after the zombie apocalypse, her lack of understanding becomes the reader's lack of understanding. While some ambiguity is to be expected, and even welcomed in a book like this, there is simply no rationale given for almost every element of the book. Temple's real name, for example, is apparently Sarah Mary Williams, which she uses on occasion. But the reader is never told why she adopted the name Temple, or really why she switches between them. The zombies are an ever-present fact of life, but no explanation is given as to where they came from. Similarly, though civilization supposedly collapsed a quarter century before the events in the book, there are functional cars sitting on the sides of the road, gas stations with gas and packaged food (although one wonders how one pumps gas when there isn't electricity), in places there is electricity and one wonders who keeps it on, people live in compounds housing many people with no visible means of growing enough crops to feed them, and so on. Every settlement Temple runs across seems to have coke and ice, and a generous willingness to hand them out to her. The Grierson family is a salient example: They are supposed to be living in an unreality where they pretend that playing Chopin on the piano and building model ships are worthwhile pastimes behind their walls, and because they are supposed to be rich, they eat like comparative kings. But other than a passing mention that one of the brothers scavenges once in a while, they have no apparently substantial enough source for all the food they eat. The hillbilly mutants also seem to have limited food sources, although the missing explanation concerning them is how they figured out the discovery that makes them giant, which seems to have eluded everyone else. While one would not necessarily expect answers to any or all of these questions, the characters in the book don't even bother to try to figure any of them out or even spend any time considering them, which one would think would be pretty close to the forefront of everyone's mind.

And this leads to my second substantial problem I had with the book: The world doesn't seem nearly as dangerous as it should be. The unexplained plentiful resources make living off the land seem pretty easy for the survivors. Temple and Maury never seem to be in danger of going hungry, or being exposed to the elements, or any of the other hazards one might expect people to face twenty-five years after civilization collapses. Granted other post-apocalyptic novels like The Stand also have people living well by scavenging through the remnants of civilization, but in a novel like The Stand the collapse is supposed to have just happened (in fact, it takes place in front of the reader's eyes), so having supermarkets filled with canned goods and packaged crackers doesn't seem wholly unreasonable in that book like it does here. A side issue this raises is the fact that the events described in the book are twenty-five years after the collapse and no one has moved on to using technology that isn't scavenged. Despite a story that wanders about the American south, we never encounter anyone riding a horse, no one ever uses a tool or weapon made after the collapse, and so on. But the most glaring example of the lack of dangerousness of the world is the zombies. The zombies are a collection of genre conventions: They are slow, they have an insatiable desire for human flesh, they are mindless animals, to kill them requires destroying their brain, and they spread the "zombie plague" by biting. But the zombies that actually show up in the book are almost laughably harmless. They are so slow that everyone calls them "slugs". They are so clumsy and so stupid that outwitting them and outfighting them seems almost trivially easy. In short, whenever the "slugs" show up, Temple seems to handle them so easily that one wonders exactly how they overwhelmed civilization.

The only real threats in the book turn out to not be either the post-apocalyptic landscape of the zombies at all, but rather the seemingly minor threat posed by the mutant hillbillies and the more dangerous threat posed by Moses Todd. I suspect this is intentional, since Temple dismisses the moral significance of the zombies in an almost offhand manner, but the evil of the hillbillies and Moses is front and center. With respect to the hillbillies, I think that their evil is supposed to be intentional, but I think that Moses Todd is supposed to be an ambiguous character. Bell seems to have tried to set up a conflict between Temple, who considers herself evil, but is actually good, and Moses Todd, who I think is supposed to be morally ambiguous - sort of a good man sent by circumstances to do something bad. But Moses Todd as a morally ambiguous character (and thus the ending of the book) simply falls flat on its face. Todd's actions and attitudes are simply unjustifiable as anything other than evil. In short, the intended morality play doesn't work out, in my opinion, because "revenge for my rapist brother's death" is simply not sufficient justification for Moses Todd's actions.

In this book it is clear that Alden Bell aimed high. The intent was seemingly to create for the zombie apocalypse a work of literary quality that would highlight the morally ambiguous landscape that an anarchy red in tooth and claw would likely create. While the book is quite readable, and Temple a fairly likable character (and hence enjoyable to follow around the countryside), the inherent contradictions of the setting coupled with a pretty weak moral conflict and an unconvincing resolution results in a flawed book that I cannot regard as any better than average.

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