Joyce Carol Oates is perhaps USA: s most popular contemporary writer. She is also critically acclaimed and many of her fans are of the opinion that she should win the Nobel Prize for literature. Even if I am not a huge fan of Oates (despite her undeniable talent, I personally have a few of other women writers I think should win the Nobel Prize instead of Oates) she has written some extraordinary pieces of fiction. The novel “Blonde”, a fictional bibliography of the iconic actress Marilyn Monroe, is in my personal opinion a masterpiece and future classic. In it Oates demonstrated her talent for experimental writing. Oates has also shown a great talent in her novel, “Zombie”.
“Zombie” centers on Quentin P. As the novel begins, Quentin has been charged and is being prosecuted for sexual violence towards a minor. He is found guilty and is forced to enter both group and personal therapy. Quentin, despite his age, is supported financially by his parents and grandmother and he lives a solitary and confined life. Quentin P. becomes obsessed, after reading about lobotomy, with the notion of creating a sexual zombie for himself. He begins this horrific attempt with the obvious result of a slew of deaths meted out to the young men on which he tries his fanatical experiments.
The story is told completely from Quentin P.’s point of view and Oates convincingly plumbs the twisted portrait of a psychotic mind. Similar to the attempts made by Ian Banks in his novel “The Wasp Factory”, which portrayed a teenage sadist, and by Brett Easton Ellis in his most famous novel “American Psycho”, Oates uses a telling prose to navigate us through Quentin’s thoughts and feelings. The prose, as constructed by the irredeemable protagonist, is always grammatically challenged and resembles, at times, a child’s way of writing. Oates additionally lays out an “illustrative novel” of the disturbed mind by giving us a set of small, simple pictures that are supposed to be drawings made by Quentin. While both the language and imagery is childlike, the actions described by Quentin are chilling, sickening and unpleasantly graphic. Here Oates succeeds in commenting on how the mind of violent people may sometimes be: they are immature and outside the kin of the social and interactive. This is an interesting take on people who commit extreme acts of violence. What if they never learned empathy while growing up?
Oates doesn’t give the reader a straight explanation for Quentin P’s behavior and psyche. She shows Quentin as a master of manipulation, being able to gain sympathy from people even if he clearly doesn’t deserve it. He says things that don’t mean anything to him, but he knows will get him out of trouble. This cynical and remote characteristic of manipulation is shown as his most poignant and disturbing weapon from when he was a little boy attacking a playmate and not wanting to get into trouble with his parents for it, to the present day when he wants sympathy from the counselor in his group therapy. This tactic gives Quentin the possibility to do more and more terrible crimes and still feel he is distant to them. Oates hints that Quentin’s use of manipulation may be an explanation for how he can get away with his crimes, along with Quentin’s immaturity and lack of empathy being a reason for how he himself can carry out them.
Other possible reasons for Quentin’s actions and psyche described in the book are Quentin P’s repressed sexuality, loneliness and obsessive need for control. Quentin speaks of how his “Zombie” will think he (as friend, companion, master and creator) is the greatest of humans, will be ultimately committed to Quentin regardless and despite his actions, and will be totally subservient to his wishes and commands.
The fundamentally and major motivator to the psyche of Quentin is his father, who in a telling moment, relentlessly chastises the young Quentin for his deep “sickness” regarding his attachment to the pictures of muscular men and forces the traumatized Quentin to create a bonfire of this collection in the suburban family backyard. Quentin is show growing up, and obtaining the deep mental scars, in an environment and time (50’s and 60’s) where homosexuality is regarding by nearly all as the most disquieting and repellent of sins. Quentin, not being able to develop and explore his sexuality identity, must repress the normal explorations of his-self with the consequences and developments emerging as a disturbing, violent nature.
“Zombie” is a rough read. It is not for the squeamish. However I do recommend this novel. It has a difficult subject matter, yet deals with it both subtly and thought provokingly, while not giving way to simplistically “clear” answers or undemanding moral polarities.
Worth the read on each and every page.