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May/June 2012
 
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Books
by James Sallis

Raising Stony Mayhall, by Daryl Gregory, Del Rey Books, 2011, $15.

Seed, by Rob Ziegler, Night Shade Books, 2011, $24.99.

 
SOMETIMES my writing students respond to a crime story or a piece of heroic fantasy by saying they don't usually read this sort of thing. When that happens, I bonk them on the head.

Okay, not really. But I do my best to bonk them in the head. How does this story fail you? I ask. What is missing here, that you might look for in what you do usually read?

We are drawn to particular kinds of art. We all have specific tastes, we're at liberty to like or dislike what we will. But first comes the understanding that, while we believe our tastes to be chosen, they are in fact mostly formed as a consequence of societal and peer influence, and of what we are exposed to.

Nor will many claims bring a more impassioned response from me than "Well, this isn't really science fiction (or a mystery, or a western), is it? This transcends (or deconstructs, or subverts) the genre."

Draw them guns, partner, you better be ready to open fire.

But to get back to the issue at hand: I don't usually read zombie novels. They're a distillate, these books, everything reduced to the lowest common denominator. So many of our base fears—fear of the Other, of discorporation, of the inexplicable, of loss of self—rolled into one oversize, stinky, slobbery blunt. Zombies stagger around, they eat a brain or two, they get killed—again. Your basic one trick, or half a trick, pony.

Well, not if the zombies have the good fortune to find themselves in Daryl Gregory's Raising Stony Mayhall, a blazingly intelligent novel that doesn't subvert or transcend or deconstruct one damn thing but instead, as all great writing does, honors and fulfills its heritage. The novel's opening smoothly cues the reader to its reach: that here we are touching on myth, the malleable stuff, the stories, from which we construct our lives.

 

It is traditional to end with the Last Girl, the sole survivor, a young woman in a blood-splattered tank top. She drops her chain saw, her sawed-off shotgun, her crowbar—these details differ—and stumbles out of the ramshackle house and into the light. Perhaps the house is burning. Dawn glows on the horizon, and the ghouls have been defeated (for now, for now—all happy endings being temporary). Perhaps she's found by her fellow survivors and taken to an enclave, a fortress teeming with heavily armed government troops, or at the very least gun-toting civilians, who will provide shelter until the sequel. Perhaps this enclave is located in Easterly, Iowa, about sixty miles northwest of the ruins of Des Moines. Perhaps the girl's name is Ruby.

That's her sitting in the high summer grass.…

 

This appears just beneath the slug line 2011/Easterly Enclave, thereby announcing, along with the ever graceful roll and tumble of the novel's language, its play with boundaries of fiction and truth, with supposition, with the reader's expectations—and with time.

Immediately then we are back in 1968/Easterly, Iowa. Wanda Mayhall, driving home through a snowstorm with her daughters, finds the body of a dead woman at roadside and, tucked against the woman's body, a newborn with cold gray skin, blue lips, and open eyes. This is the story of John "Stony" Mayhall's non-life, of the family that takes him in, and of the greater world into which he, a survivor of the First Outbreak, eventually stumbles.

By turns, Raising Stony Mayhall is a coming-of-age novel, a political novel, a nuts-and-bolts horror novel, a parable of the holocaust, and a book of the new messiah. That sounds like quite a lot to load onto a small wagon, but much of it is of course subtext—what is at the heart of the novel, not on its surface—and everything coheres around the initial premise. Given the fantastic notion that there are zombies, what then, realistically, follows?

Do these Others attempt to join the society that despises and fears them, that has tried to eradicate them? Or do they strive toward accommodation? Fit into the greater society, stand apart from the greater society, become the greater society?

And what, exactly, are their non-lives like? Repeatedly we see Stony with body torn open, arms torn or cut away, break after break in bones and in skin "the color of last night's porkchop."

 

His wounds never healed. In fact, they only grew larger as he grew. Stitches popped, even those made from the high-test line his mother used. They repaired him like a rag doll with too much sentimental value to throw out.

 

Stony does what every child does developmentally: He learns what it is to be human by mimicking. He dresses like the others, plays with sisters and the neighbor whose family knows his secret, even fakes bodily functions: "He taught himself to chew chew chew, letting his gut fill up like a lawn mower bag, and then later he'd slip out to the bathroom and throw everything up." He does his best to fit in, but never can.

The hundred pages of Part One, which contain the novel's most beautiful and affecting writing, cover Stony's childhood and adolescence up to his forced departure from home and his meeting with others of his kind, an underground of crusading, often paramilitary Living Dead.

Part Two opens from the personal onto the political as Stony moves from family to a larger community and finds himself among various factions of the undead maneuvering for, against, and sideways to the ultimate solution, The Big Bite. Billy Zip, primary advocate for the forceful annexation of the breathers, tells Stony: "I'm saving us, kid. Our people will realize that soon enough." Greed, guerrilla warfare and the greater good, betrayal, self-sacrifice—all have their appointed time onstage.

Part Three tracks the years of Stony's incarceration along with many others LDs at a Gitmo-like facility familiarly known as Deadtown. As always, Stony winds up in-between, counsel and comforter to detainees, invaluable aide and experimental subject to the camp's director, target for spite and beatings by guards.

 

For a moment there was a rectangular patch of exposed flesh at the man's wrist, only inches from Stony's teeth. He let the moment pass…he'd promised himself he wouldn't bite anyone again.

Eventually the guards exhausted themselves. Harry Vincent squatted next to him, breathing hard. "I promise you, Stony. One day I'm going to be the one to throw you in the incinerator. I'm going to light a cigarette off your flaming head and watch you burn."

 

At Deadtown, Stony discovers salvific strength not in exception, but in union, letting go of self, opening to the world. Later LDs make folklore of this event, Stony's Release, artists variously rendering Stony's expression as sad, angry, beatific. Did he know that the locks would open, the chains fall? Did he at that moment expect his existence to end, or somehow have faith that he would be resurrected?

 

His body was a dead thing tied to a chair, which was itself another dead thing.… Where one dead thing ended and another began was largely a problem of perception and definition.

 

Part Four takes Stony into seclusion and then again into the world as, now a leader, he works toward D-Day, the great coming-out when LDs will go public. Later, he will think of those weeks as the Farewell Tour. And later still, summarily betrayed, all his grand hopes thrown over by the Big Bite, he will understand his culpability, how his best intentions have been turned to other ends, confessing to Ruby: "They couldn't have done it without me."

For the final, transcendent pages, with much the sensation of coming through stormy seas to calm water, we find ourselves in present tense and first person. "Perhaps you were expecting a happy ending," Stony tells us—or what remains of him does. "Sorry about that. I don't blame you for hoping."

And we, as readers, are left with Stony's hope resounding, with his humor, his wonder, his absolute humanity. We carry away the life we have lived alongside him, and for a time that makes our own world larger, fuller, ourselves more alive.

Of Ruby, Stony's sister's daughter and the Last Girl we met on the novel's initial page, Daryl Gregory writes: "She was a little battery of life, jamming the death signal."

So is this novel.

 

As I read my way into it, Rob Ziegler's Seed often felt like three novels stitched together. Though the stitchery is done with great skill, quite artfully really, I was seldom able to forget that three disparate parts had been violently conjoined.

That having been said, I should add that I read this first novel straight through in two sittings; it has that pull to it.

The first tier is eco-dystopian. We all know this song; feel free to sing along. Arid wasteland, depleted resources, cobbled-together vehicles, land pirates, scavenging, tribal societies, nomadic existence. Down and dirty. This is where we begin and end, and for me, with the fresh spin Ziegler gives the tune, the most successful and beguiling of the three strains.

 

The prairie saint wore a white lab coat with a black cross fire-branded onto the lapel, blotting out the name of some long-dead doctor…his stage the wrecked maw of a department store at the end of the abandoned shopping mall, his audience a captive huddle of migrants clad in paper FEMA refugee suits, sheltering from the sandblasting north Texas wind. Sweat gleamed on his forehead.

He preached the end of days.

 

In the prairie saint's audience are Brood, his autistic brother Pollo, and old man Hondo Loco, there to case their next smash-and-grab.

Eighteen pages farther along, we hit the second tier with the introduction of Pihadassa, a geneticist or "Designer." She works for and was either created by or created the city Satori, itself a living entity and the sole source of the seed that feeds the country's decimated population. Pihadassa when we see her is about to go over the wall, taking her favorite advocate with her. We're firmly out of Cordwainer Smith territory here. Spliced together from the DNA of various predators, the advocates are not C'mells.

 

Movement flickered in Pihadassa's peripheral vision. The pilot's body jerked upwards. Something snapped. Blood sprayed the windscreen. The pilot rose slowly, then seemed to hover over her seat.…

The advocate stared down the length of her arm at where her fingers—bones spliced with coral and dense as granite—disappeared into the pilot's throat.

 

Much of this second narrative stream will center about Satori, concerning itself with Pihadassa's mate Sumedha and a second Designer pair, and with the ultimate aims of the living city.

 

The city spread out below, an intermingled series of bending muscle towers and soft domes twined abruptly with the concrete, brick and plexi of the old city. Shadowy bone latticework showed through translucent skin. A thousand hearts beat oxygen and heat into a thousand buildings, pumped waste out onto the compost heaps along the northern fields. Far beneath Sumedha a group of landraces moved slowly on their hands and knees along a snake scale street. Their rough voices sang as their hands polished the scales with fur brushes.

 

With Chapter Three, we come onto the third tier. This narrative stream is all boorah, albeit through the auspice of an oddly disaffected soldier. Agent Sienna Doss works for a military we scarcely see and has a human connection only with her near-death partner. Privileged by her service, she merits an apartment "the size of a footlocker," a sink, a hot plate, a wardrobe, enough food. We never really discover what engines push her; she seems driven solely by duty just as Brood and company are driven by the necessity to survive and the Designers by Satori's ineffable agenda. To Doss falls the imperative to go out into this ravaged world and bring back the renegade Designer Pihadassa. Reduced to distributing Satori's seed, the government, such as it is, would like to break Satori's stranglehold.

 

Doss wrapped the coarse burlap of her shawl across her nose, filtering out dust. She sat hunkered, dressed in migrant rags, at the edge of a firepit dug into the powdery dirt of a field in the lee of a collapsed overpass. Acrid smoke rose from a hunk of burning plastic, over which several other migrants had spitted rats.

 

Everything comes together, rather breathlessly, in the final pages. Brood and Pollo, desperately marginalized children of the new world; Agent Doss, servant of the new world who remembers the old; Sumedha, created at the new world's extremes—the crossroad awaits them.

For all the deft interlockings of plot, though, the three stories never quite adhere. Rather, they slide past and around one another—a slippage of which Rob Ziegler was aware. It was a difficult blend, he wrote in a brief essay on Random House's Suvudu website, but a whole lot of fun.

 

[T]he things that fascinated me in this story don't make an intuitively obvious blend, genre-wise. The eldritch world of extreme bioengineering, for example, doesn't, if one were to do a quick word association, lead to the spaghetti western. And the spaghetti western, in turn, does not stand elbows linked with tech-fetishizing, military sci fi. For me, though, they all stewed together. Mostly this was because I was fixated on certain characters—characters who, to me, felt akin one another, despite being native to disparate settings.

 

Stories, I tell my students, are problem-solving devices. The more off plumb a story is, the wider its seams, the greater the writer's reach, the more energy the story will have. Seed has a great deal, and I'll be at the head of the line for Rob Ziegler's second novel.

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