For Joshua Levin, the hero of Aleksandar Hemon’s marvelous comic novel The Making of Zombie Wars, daily life is a source of inspiration, a succession of bruising encounters and near-continuous mortifications that can be mined for the premises of awful films that will never be produced. Scattered throughout the book are Joshua’s plans for screenplays, each numbered and with a title and plot that are, even by Hollywood standards, at once preposterous and banal, yet the mind that conceived them has clearly absorbed many movies. Stoned on pot, Joshua goes on a wild, nauseating car ride through Chicago with his landlord, named Stagger, a veteran of Desert Storm who suffers from PTSD, and is more or less handy with a samurai sword. Joshua translates this nightmarish experience into an idea for yet more bad art:
Script Idea #196: A rock star high out of his mind freaks out during his show, runs off the stage, and finds himself lost in a city whose name he can’t recall, but whose streets are crowded with his hallucinations. A teenage fan discovers him trembling behind a garbage container, begging the Lord to get him out of his trip. The teen decides to keep the rock star for himself for the night. Mishaps and adventures follow. This one could be a musical: Singin’ in the Brain.
While trying to write at a coffee shop, Joshua watches a group of ROTC cadets and imagines them “in the desert, thickly coated in dust, tongue-hanging thirsty on their way to a battle where they would mature and/or heroically die, the nefarious natives offering them contaminated piss-warm water in beaten tin cups.” Thus the idea for his magnum opus, Zombie Wars, is born:
Out of the sad ROTC mindlessness the scene from Dawn of the Dead was recollected in which zombies tottered in circles around a depopulated shopping mall unable to forget their life before their undeath, their infected brains still retaining the remnants of their happy Christmas memories…. In a blissful blink, Joshua saw the narrative landscape neatly laid down before him: all the endless possibilities, all the overhead and wide shots, all the graceful character trajectories blazing across the spectacular firmament, all the expanse conducive to a love interest—all Joshua had to do was stroll through that Edenic symmetry and write it down.
Acutely self-aware, and painfully self-conscious, Joshua is not getting a great deal of satisfaction from his career as a pretend screenwriter. He supports himself by teaching “English as a Second Language” in a school founded primarily as a “noble scam” to divert funds earmarked for providing educational visas to Soviet Jews into “a resettlement program, a leftover from the heroic, Operation Exodus times.” Among his students are a cranky former KGB agent and his wife, neither of whom bothers to hide…
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