Love, Lust and Death are universal human experiences and pervasive literary themes. The Loving Dead blends them in a way that I have never seen before. Amelia Beamer’s début novel mixes up: Oakland California, twenty-something slackers, their angst and relationships, and a zombie apocalypse. Its characters are realistically self-centered, its apocalypse realistically dealt with more through text messaging and comment threads than through the main stream media, and its ending is different from any horror/zombie/apocalypse story ending I’ve ever read or heard of. Frankly, I think that the last ten pages alone are worth the price of admission. Overall this is a fast and rewarding read.
Kate and Michael are the central characters in Loving Dead. They’re housemates, both working at Trader Joe’s in Oakland. Kate appears to be in a staging area in life before moving on with her life: she’s earning money at TJ’s and as a companion to an older man; she’s also taking some community college classes. Michael appears to be stalled out: working at TJ’s and hosting hip parties at the house, with few plans for the future. Generally speaking, Kate seems to look out into the world a little more, and Michael seems to look inwards and towards relationships for his future.
After a belly dancing class one night, Kate helps when her instructor Jamie is accosted by a shambling drunk trying to rape her. She invites Jamie up to the latest house party so she won’t be alone. After some booze and Xanax, they hook up–this being Kate’s first lesbian encounter. As Kate is getting ready to return the favor, Jamie turns in to a zombie. Hallmarks: eyes turning white, skin turning grey, and speaking the phrase “Something’s happening.”
The next scene is simultaneously funny and uncomfortable as the various drunk-stoned-medicated party goers try to decide what to do with the zombie. As various people turn they get contained. Then folks either leave or fall asleep watching zombie movies. No one is willing to go to the hospital: no insurance means huge unknown medical bills, or they might be abducted by the government for secret testing and never seen again. In the morning Michael and Kate go their separate ways. Each starts the day trying to pretend that the zombie apocalypse is not happening, but each is soon confronted by the reality of it.
Over the course of the rest of that day, we get zombies on zeppelins, zeppelin crashes, zombies in houses, houses burning down, concussions, zombies in grocery stores, and a convergence as our cast make their way to Alcatraz–agreed upon as the most defensible site in the Bay Area. The characters learn some important things as they’re navigating the slow-moving collapse: zombieism is an STD, and zombies try to make more zombies by luring victims in with sex appeal, then biting and/or eating them. However, they become obedient at the sound of a whip crack.
The fact that zombieism is sexually transmitted leads directly to the conflation of love, lust and death in this novel. Michael is particularly susceptible to all three: he may be in love with Kate, he’s easily lured by lust for several of the women in the novel, and he seems to have a guilt-driven death wish that isn’t easily explained. Kate is more level-headed, but even she is motivated by love and lust and the confusion between them. Even while dealing with their impending doom they are both rather self-focused, having rich internal lives with lots of introspection in the interstices between the well-paced dialog.
My summary may make the book seem almost sedate, even boring? It isn’t. Beamer takes a page from the grand tradition of adventure writers. Chapters are short (as is the novel, clocking in at around 250 pages), and most end with cliff hangers that make you want to turn the page. Much of the text is dialog, and the speech is natural in a Joss Whedon sort of way: it’s got a natural rhythm to it, but it’s funnier and wittier than most of us will ever be in real life. The whole thing reads quickly and it’s easy to just keep reading it.
I love the fact that these characters feel like real people, even when they’re being as annoying or random as real people are. I especially like the fact that these people have seen zombie movies, absorbed the pop-culture notions of zombies, and adjust their zombie coping strategies appropriately (this lack being a major complaint about characters in zombie movies). Likewise, this is the generation that communicates peer-to-peer (whether via phone or the internet). I found that both realistic and satisfying. I’ve felt that a lot of earlier sf had a huge blind spot about the role of media in society, a blind spot that writers like Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross and Beamer are finally filling. As Kate says:
“And it’s not on the mainstream news. Probably they don’t want people to panic. Or they don’t think it’s real. This is the apocalypse that will only be covered by gonzo journalism. Forget the reporters in rain gear during Katrina, or Tom Brokaw embedded in Iraq — this’ll be about blogs and Twitter.” She’d put off getting a Twitter account, and now it was too late.
And again, while I’m trying desperately not to spoil the ending, the ending adds a big dollop of intellectual awesome-sauce to the whole thing (although it is emotionally sobering).
I can point out a few weakness: for instance, while there’s some hot lesbian sex and good lesbian relationships, gay guys don’t get the same screen time (possibly feeding into the cultural perception of lesbians as hot and gay guys as gross). I felt that the book began strong and ended strong but sometimes lagged in the middle. Also, within that awesome epilogue, we don’t really learn the outcome of at least one character that I’d come to care about. And I have to admit that Michael falls into a class of self-obsessed slightly angsty characters that I don’t have a lot of sympathy for. In a mainstream novel I’d have definitely disliked him; here his angst is mitigated by the fact that he genuinely tries to do his best in the face of a massive crisis.
OK, full disclosure time. Amelia Beamer is one of my oldest and best friends in the field. I met her the same day I met the late Charles N. Brown (her employer then; she still works for Locus magazine) and Gary K. Wolfe and we’ve been friends ever since. I was really worried about picking up her début novel: what if I didn’t like it? What if it sucked, what would I say? Luckily, I honestly enjoyed the book. The last third of it especially grabbed me; I stayed up late to finish it because I didn’t want to put it down. It was a little jarring to read at times; Beamer has taken ‘write what you know’ quite seriously, so I’ve actually been to the house that Michael and Kate’s house is based on; characters have backgrounds that match backgrounds of real people I know, and at one point Kate’s voicemail message is the same unique one used by a friend. So that introduced a whole new level of cognitive estrangement for me. But: a) that shouldn’t affect 99% of the readers out there, and b) during the last third of the book all that fell away. So by all means take my review with a grain of salt. But seriously, give Loving Dead a try. At the very least, it’s completely different from anything else you’ll read this year.