Daniel Petersen's Reviews > Zombie Bake-Off

Zombie Bake-Off by Stephen Graham Jones
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's review
Apr 26, 2013

really liked it

This was a fun read. But not in the way that the title might seem to imply. This is not a 'comedy' or a 'spoof' or even 'whacky' and 'zany' and the like. It's an actual story with an actual plot and actual characters. An entertaining tale that builds to a pretty satisfying denouement. It is funny in its very premise and in some of the details of the working out of that premise. And yes, it is absurd and outrageous in its mechanism and scenario. I guess it strikes me as some obscure but classic-worthy B-movie that has been transmuted into a fairly literary novel.

The 'literary' nature of the novel is nearly invisible, and all the better for it. But it is literary in its craftsmanship. This book just isn't 'bestseller' level writing. The prose style is spare, but it also has a sort of broken, spoken quality to it. Like the way people talk. The way I'm writing right now. Eschewing complete sentences. Things like that. But with a real poetry to it at times. I've seen this kind of writing at the high brow level in Cormac McCarthy and at the more 'genre' level in China Mieville (specifically the latter's novel The City & The City). And perhaps Stephen Graham Jones's zombie novel could be placed somewhere between those two authors on the literary spectrum.

As I say, it felt like a good obscure B-movie: the kind that is somehow enthralling in its implausibility and riveting in the near pointlessness of its imaginative gore and mounting body count. It's all about the sheer imagery - survivors on the run from zombie soccer moms and zombie pro-wrestlers, all inside a locked down convention centre - with some gross details and descriptions, some tense character interaction. (The philosophy is light but it's there. It's fairly standard as zombie stuff goes, but well rendered: nihilism vs. the human spirit.)

The characters are very nicely drawn and the group of survivors are an unlikely and likeable array of misfits - a blind elderly lady with heightened senses of smell and taste; a huge 'idiot' wrestler who is both an unstoppable powerhouse and a gentle soul; a tough single mom and her well-meaning but over-fraught and often inept rent-a-cop brother (I kept picturing Andy from Twin Peaks); a broody 'Goth' wrestler who is quietly intelligent, cultured, and down-to-earth underneath the theatrical make-up; a gregarious, wily Texan manager; a camp food show host, and so on.

As regards zombie lore, the tale takes a welcome original turn in the last quarter. It doesn't develop the innovation much, but it was pleasingly grotesque and even biologically interesting. (But this is not a science-y tale - the eco-bio speculation comes off more like magic, as horror usually should in my opinion.)

Here's a passage I found particularly arresting. It gives you an idea of what the writing is like. The banner mentioned in this scene is for the big pro-wrestling event that's supposed to take place that evening. (I've left out the character's names to avoid spoilers.) A man is high up in the domed ceiling-work of the coliseum on a rickety walkway that breaks:

‘What it does is whip him on his wire, sling him loose, fling him across all the open space of the coliseum, hard enough that he even gains some height.
Instead of coming down directly on the chairs like it looks, too, he whumps into something wide and black, a wall of velvet, like a shadow given substance, some kind God’s dark hand, gently cupped.
The TINY GIANT vs. XOMBIE banner.
It billows around [him], the waves of fabric undulating out, whipping either edge.
But it can’t hold him.
He rolls down in something like slow motion — not a full-on freefall, but the next best thing — and the banner finally spits him out forty feet above the stands.
Still conscious, he sees it coming: a steel railing.
He grins the littlest bit, accepting this justice, and then goes facefirst against it, an ugly crunch that, even from half a coliseum away, sends [one of the other characters] to her knees.’

You can feel that the phrases and words are thoughtfully chosen and honed. Yet the elegance of its cadence and simile is offset by a certain choppiness and grit. The 'higher' vocabulary ('billows', 'undulating') weaves in and out of a 'lower' vocabulary ('whumps', 'full-on') that makes the whole still come across kind of 'coarse' and 'conversational' despite its obvious literary quality. It's a style that really works, I think.

I'm looking forward to more from this author!

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Reading Progress

April 26, 2013 – Started Reading
April 26, 2013 – Shelved
May 6, 2013 – Finished Reading

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