The Big Idea: Robin Becker
Zombies: Very popular in literature these days. But there’s a (zombie) elephant in the room here: In all of zombie literature, there is one person whose needs, wants and desires are woefully underarticulated — yea, hardly a shuffling moan is heard in his or her defense. Who is that silent person? Author Robin Becker knows, and in Brains: A Zombie Memoir, she finally gives that person a voice. I’ll let her explain herself — and her silent partner — better.
Brains: A Zombie Memoir developed out of this simple realization: Most zombie movies aren’t about zombies. They’re about humans, those desperate survivors holed up in houses or vacant buildings, fighting amongst themselves over food or whose plan to follow. It’s their struggle, their survival, their story that we’re told.
But what about the zombie? Who will tell his story?
The idea occurred to me in 2004. It was a banner year for zombie movies, the year of Shawn of the Dead and the Dawn of the Dead remake. Land of the Dead, with it optimistic ending (at least for the ghoul), followed close on their heels in 2005.
That’s when the “big idea” became bigger: What if a zombie retained sentience? What if inside one of those rotting, moaning, brain-eating automatons lurks a being who thinks, feels, maybe even loves?
The question became this: What if the living dead have souls?
Suddenly I was rolling around in the mud of zombie ontology, Cartesian duality, and a few stray tendons. I started reading about the philosophical zombie and my mind was blown.
I had to write that story! My zombie would be a special being, almost transcendent, and all alone in a sea of mindless monsters. He would be conflicted and scared—but still driven to do what the living dead do best: Eat brains. That would be the tension, the crux: a character driven by two opposing impulses, the higher and the lower. Good and evil, if you will.
Would a sentient zombie be able to refrain from eating brains if necessary? If it benefited him in the long run, could he ignore the gleaming viscera before him? Could a zombie be “civilized”?
Spoiler alert: Turns out, the answer is no.
I set about writing in the first-person POV of a thinking zombie. At the time, there wasn’t the amount of zombie lit there is now—Max Brooks’ Survival Guide and the Permuted Press catalogue, mostly. The field was wide open! My book would be the first zombie diary, a memoir, a zomoir, as I called it. It would chronicle his resurrection and subsequent struggle to survive—just like the zombie movies do, but from the other side of the consciousness divide.
With this in mind, I couldn’t go the straight genre route. If I adhered strictly to the rules, Brains would only be a short story. “Mwaaaa,” the living dead said. “Gunh. Nom.” The end.
I decided that the characters would be aware of zombie mythology. They’ve all seen the movies, and most have read the Zombie Survival Guide. In fact, the characters in Brains comment on the amazing fact that everything in the movies turns out to be true. These genre conventions remain: a virus spread by biting; the infected sick with a fever and chills; slow, stupid Romero zombies. To kill them you shoot ‘em in the head.
Oh, and gore. There had to be gore.
Just as I was aware of genre, while at the same time playing with it (in the form of the smart zombie), I couldn’t be all philosophical. How boring! Those ideas had to be inherent in the text, not overt soliloquies. Luckily that was easy because the more I tried to be serious, the more I faced the absurd. Jokes appeared, seemingly of their own free will. (Plus, I love zom-coms!) The outer characteristics of zombies (drooling, shambling, limbs falling off) sharply contrast with the trauma of a mind trapped inside that fetid body—and it’s fertile ground for humor.
So I took it one step further and created Jack Barnes, PhD. in English, complete with pipe and elbow patches. As a human, Jack was the kind of guy who sees casual conversation as competition. Surely he would be melodramatic—but his drama would be ridiculous because of his physical state. The indignity of his situation! The humanity!
It didn’t hurt that I teach at a university and so am all-too-familiar with profs like Jack. The book was an opportunity to “write what I know” and poke gentle fun of my profession, while at the same time tackle real phenomenological questions: What makes a person? Who deserves to “live”? Is consciousness what makes us human? Is language?
In the past, I’d been a careful writer, afraid to make the puns that I love so much, afraid to make popular culture allusions, afraid to have fun, darn it. Because writing is serious! But during the writing of Brains, I said screw it. If zombies cannibalize humans, then the memoir of a professor-turned-zombie would cannibalize culture.
But a strange thing happened on the way to the end, and it was completely unexpected. I started to care about Jack; I started to worry about his future, his survival. He finds a small band of other rational zombies and together they fight to survive. When their situation becomes dire, the jokes dry up, the allusions to other movies and books slow down, and we are left with the all-too-human story of one entity’s quest to discover who he is and therefore how to “live.” No philosophical zombies, no jokes. We are left with—dare I say it?—love.
One final word: Although Brains is in the voice of a zombie, when the apocalypse happens—and it will—I’m killing them, even if a few can think or write. When it comes down to us or them, I’m picking us. Every time.