“Some Zombie Contingency Plans” by Kelly Link
May 18, 2010 at 1:43 am | Posted in Short Stories | 6 Comments
Tags: Kelly Link
Back to my series on stories from Kelly Link’s Magic For Beginners. I haven’t graphed it but I suspect the time between these posts is rising exponentially. All I can say in my defense is these are hard stories to write about. If I’d known how hard it would be I wouldn’t have committed to it, but I’m glad I did. I’m learning a lot, and hopefully other people will find it helpful too.
If you haven’t read the story, it’s available online on Kelly Link’s web site. As usual, spoilers ahead.
There’s not a lot of discussion of this story online, and a lot of what is out there isn’t really about the story at all. In his New York Times review of Magic For Beginners, Michael Knight questioned whether the zombies in “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” were supposed to be a metaphor. In a blog posting I can’t find any more, Scott Westerfeld jumped all over this, denouncing the tendancy for mainstream reviews to insist on metaphorical readings for science fiction and fantasy at the expense of literal interpretations. Quite a lot of discussion resulted in the genre community, mostly approving expansions of Westerfeld’s argument.
Looking back on it all five years later I’m a little perplexed. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the general point Westerfeld apparently made (I hesitate to say definitely because, like a scholar studying a lost work of antiquity, I can only read Westerfeld’s original article in the quotations that others made in surviving texts): mainstream authors and critics alike too often think fiction is only relevant if it is directly, immediately applicable to the present moment. Apart from what Tolkien said about it, is Lord of the Rings really improved by reading the One Ring as a metaphor for nuclear weapons? Surely the answer is no, and an alternate version of the text that fit this reading better would be far poorer than the real one.
Unfortunately, however, Westerfeld wasn’t talking about Lord of the Rings, he was talking about “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” and as a very few people in the comments from the discussions I linked noted, there really aren’t any zombies in it. Insomuch as there are any, I agree with the New York Times reviewer that they can best be understood metaphorically. Like most of Kelly Link’s stories there is a single fantastic departure from the real world, but it’s not zombies at all, but rather a small, unassuming painting that the main character finds in a dark museum room.
The bane of modern literary discussion is that hardly anyone has read the same stuff, and I assume that most people commenting in those discussions hadn’t actually read the story, so I can understand the mistake. But anyone who had read any Kelly Link story probably should have known better. After all, even if the reviewer’s reading wasn’t really correct, feeling confused by a Kelly Link story isn’t a crime, is it? I hope not, because I am invariably confused after reading one of her stories for the first time. Multiple readings don’t always dispel it, either, and this story is a good example.
Maybe confusion is part of the intended effect. Perhaps that sounds like a desperate move for me to make, and it is, but give it a chance. The story is, after all, an examination of the fluidity of identity. In a story whose main character shifts to match his surroundings, should we be surprised the story itself veers from mundane to horror by way of surrealism? The first line sets out to tell the reader what the story is about: “This is a story about being lost in the woods.” If we are taking everything in the story literally, this is a shocking announcement to find on a second read-through, because no one is lost in the woods in the main narrative. No one is in the woods at all, actually.
But reading the story a second time reveals plenty of reasons to think the story is playing games with meaning. Early on, for example, there is an extended discussion of the main character’s views on art. The first time through, these are mildly amusing, but nothing more. Reading it a second time, however, familiar with the later revelation of the main character’s real name, Arthur (“but everybody called him Art. Ha ha.”), the whole section takes on an ingenious double meaning:
- “Art was why Soap was in prison.”
- “Soap still didn’t know much about art.”
- “Great art came out of great suffering. Soap had gone through a lot of shit because of art.”
There’s plenty more where that came from, I didn’t make an exhaustive list. The climax of this section comes when art and soap are actually compared: “There was a difference between art, which you just looked at, and things like soap, which you used. […] A lot of people said things like “That’s not art” when whatever they were talking about could clearly not have been anything else except art.”
Now try not to cringe as I point out that Soap’s mysterious painting is…a piece of art. He can slide from identity to identity, but the painting stays with him. The fact that the zombie-infested woods of the scanty alternate narrative seems to be what Soap sees in the painting reinforces the idea that it’s mirroring his subconsciousness (his friend Mike sees his own obsession, icebergs, instead).
In a previous post I noted that while reading the collection I noticed several pairs of stories that seemed to cover similar themes. I see this story and “Catskin” as a pair about identity. “Catskin”, in my view, focused on how changes to the appearance of characters did not alter their essence. I think “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” seems to argue that while you can fool people about who you are, your actions still have consequences.
Unlike in “Catskin” there’s no fantastic element to the shifts of identity. Even aside from the main character’s direct shifts, it happens constantly: Mike and Art pretending to be legitimate guests at museum parties, Carly pretending to be the friend of the girl whose parents own the house, and even Art giving his mother a urinal cake as if it were soap. Yet Mike and Art still went to prison for their role in the museum theft. Carly’s pretense that it’s someone else’s house being ruined by the party will eventually be ended by her parents’ return. And while we don’t know the outcome of Soap’s escapade at the end of the story, nothing before it in the story implies these flimsy constructions are stable, and therefore it seems likely that he’ll be charged with theft and perhaps kidnapping when it’s all over.
One final similarity with “Catskin” is that while Soap/Art’s ability to present different faces to the world seems clever, it hasn’t brought him any happiness. He’s conscious of how people don’t see the real him, and even though he can exploit this, he finds it frustrating and tiresome. This seems to be the root of his attraction to thinking about zombies. One of the reasons he likes zombies, we’re told in the early wordplay section, is that they “don’t care about art.” Later, when he considers his place in the world, he comes back to the zombies: “Nobody really knows him. If they did, they wouldn’t like him…He tells himself everything will be different when the zombies show up.” Although this sounds a bit like wish-fulfillment, the way Carly dreams of being president and loved by everyone, I suspect that Soap isn’t wishing for a world where his contingency plans will mark him as a visionary, he’s wishing for a world where it’s just him and the zombies. Zombies don’t misrepresent themselves, and they treat everyone the same (“Zombies don’t discriminate”…note also that everyone at the house party is described solely in racial terms). He knows how zombies will act towards him and he knows how he’d need to act with zombies.
Seen this way, a world overrun zombies is in a way less fantastic than the real one, a world far more ordered and therefore more manageable. It’s not necessarily a healthy viewpoint…Soap in general doesn’t seem like he’s in great shape, psychologically…but it represents a somewhat counter-intuitive view of fantasy in general. Supposedly fantasy is a genre with far more possibilities than boring old real life, yet it’s so often the case that fantasy settings are actually gravely simplified affairs far less frustratingly complex than the real world. I don’t know how confident I am that this reading is really what Kelly Link intended, but how great is it that a story that five years ago was assumed to be a champion of genre fantasy might actually be a criticism of it? If so, Kelly Link’s work points to ways in which the fantastic really can be used to broaden perspectives rather than narrow them.