Tuesday, August 21, 2012

You Want Brains with that?

Calling a book "gimmicky" is usually an insult, but criticizing Sean Beaudoin's books for using gimmicks would be like going to see a magician and complaining that he used sleight-of-hand. The gimmicks are the point. And Beaudoin takes them right over the top

His first book, Fade to Blue, takes place, partly, in a comic book insert. His next book, You Killed Wesley Payne is a noir detective novel set in a high school and centers on a baroque diagram showing the relationships between high school cliques. His new book, The Infects, is a zombie novel which layers one odd gimmick onto another, all of it somehow fusing together to create a, more or less, coherent narrative.

The book opens in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. Nick and his sister Amanda are part of a rag tag militia attempting to survive. Nick is doing his best but mostly bumbling while little Amanda destroys zombies at every turn, showing deadly instincts and near super-human agility. Except that it turns out this isn't reality. It's a video game. A gimmicky opening, but, hey, it works.

Nick's reality is that he is a high school student living with his lazy and unemployed father who he calls The Dude (his mother has left them), and his little sister Amanda, who is on Asperger's medication until someone decides what her real trouble is. When she speaks, it's in hesitant questions; she tends to prefer sitting under a table playing hand-held video games to any other interactions. Nick loves her absolutely and would do anything for her. To pay for her medicine, and to support the family, Nick works nights at Rebozzo's Fryers, a chicken processing plant, where he butchers chickens (mercifully, the book, rich in other horrors, spares us the details of this butchery). When Nick gets an odd sort of promotion, which places him alone in an experimental kitchen and increases his hours to an unsustainable level, he is on his way to trouble. When he stabs himself in the hand and is forced to halt production, his boss takes him to court for criminal negligence. Nick's punishment is to be sent to Inward Trek, a rehabilitation program in the wilderness. His wounded hand still bothering him, he heads up a mountain in a bus full of juvenile delinquents and sadistic counselors.

It's one of the counselors sadistic acts that's their undoing. When the bus stops for fast food at Fresh Bukket , an overwhelmingly popular fast food chicken place that happens to be supplied by Rebozzo's, the counselors find excuses to keep the "clients" from getting any of the food. The next day, everyone who ate the chicken has turned zombie. Fresh Bukket's popularity means the entire town at the base of the mountain, as well as many of the travellers passing through, become zombies. Hordes of them shuffle up the mountainside, hunting the surviving Inward Trek members.

The book, written in Beaudoin's staccato riffing prose, is partly a critique of and partly celebration of contemporary culture. People, Beaudoin suggests, are already pretty zombified when they find themselves so manipulated by fast food companies that they can't help from gobbling the stuff up regardless of what it does to them. On the other hand the book celebrates zombie movies. The characters all understand what they're up against. The book inserts "rules" of zombie survival developed from too much movie exposure and when those rules are broken the characters are thoroughly puzzled. It's really the humor of zombie movies that get the characters through their zombie hell, letting them makes jokes in the midst of their terror.

All the weirdness and gimmicks don't work perfectly. Some devices seem arbitrarly thrown in, not to advance the plot or make a point, but just for the sake of more weirdness, but the book keeps you hooked with its humor, commentary, action, grossness and plot twists. If you're in the market for a teenage-zombie thriller, The Infects is one of the most entertaining and artful yet.

The Infects will be available September 25th from Candlewick Press.

The publisher has provided a time-limited digital galley for the purposes of this review.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Nice review. I picked an arc up at ALA this past June, but while I like the author, I wasn't sure I was up for zombies. BTW, wasn't Going Nowhere Faster the author's debut?