Sunday, December 21, 2008

Vive La Difference

Last May I reviewed Generation Dead, by Daniel Waters, and said it raises some interesting issues, like the difference between fiction and lies, and what it means to wear ultra-pale makeup and black clothing in a world in which teenagers come back from the dead, and the teachers at the high school require their classmates to use the politically correct term for them, which is "differently biotic." Well, a few weeks ago I was excited to receive an advance reading copy of Kiss of Life, which takes up where Generation Dead left off. This book won't be published until May, 2009, and I'll be waiting impatiently for you all to be able to read it, because it continues the story of the acceptance campaign for the dead kids, who call themselves zombies, and shows how easy it is to spread fear of those who are different.

Like Stephanie Meyers' Twilight series and Cassandra Clare's City of Bones series, this series deals with how difficult it is for a girl to choose between a guy who has always been a friend and a guy who is new, exciting, dangerous, and different. Also like Meyers and Clare, Waters is more interested in the effects of the dead having risen than he is in the cause of their rising.

And yet the "cause" of the dead is the focus of the book. At various points, the way the dead and their advocates work to advance their rights implicitly compares them to people who work for affirmative action, homosexuals, the blind, the paralyzed, and the deaf. Early on, some of the zombies call themselves "sons of Romero" and declare themselves uninterested in mixing with "the beating hearts," much like some deaf people declare themselves uninterested in learning to read lips and being able to get along in the hearing world. The way some churches are arrayed against their cause and revelations like "it was common practice for bioists to blame zombies for the 'crime' of being undead, as though they'd chosen such a fate" are clearly akin to current gay rights struggles. The parallels with the civil rights struggle are most striking, of course, with one zombie girl "passing" as a live girl, and Tommy, the hero of Generation Dead, striking out to combat prejudice in the style of Martin Luther King, Jr., while Tak, who was a more marginal figure in the previous book, rises to prominence in the style of Malcolm X.

The fun part of Kiss of Life is the ironic attitude of the "zombies," and the wordplay inevitably associated with talking about them. At their hangout from the first book, the "haunted house," they have an "unliving room." In Kiss of Life, there's a zombie nightclub called "Aftermath," and the decorations there include a series of posters from movies like "Night of the Living Dead." At one point Colette, who has become more functional as she has been more loved, is talking to the lead zombie singer of the band Skeleton Crew, who have been playing at Aftermath, and Phoebe sees them "talking animatedly" and then thinks "wrong word." When she asks Colette what they were saying, Colette tells her "That. . . annoying boy . . . kept saying the word . . . 'groundbreaking.' Not good . . . word choice . . . for a zombie."

The ironic centerpiece of Kiss of Life is the murder trial of Pete Martinsburg, who shot Adam at the end of Generation Dead. As Pete's lawyer says, why is he required " to go through the charade of a murder trial when the supposed victim walked into the room under his own power"? And yet it seems that most of the people at the trial fail to understand how profoundly Adam's "life" has changed.

I like the chapters in which Adam, or "FrankenAdam" as he calls himself when he first comes back from the dead minus most of his ability to move or talk, speaks for himself. They make the book's later reminders that he has no legal rights, as a dead person, even more horrifying. While one dead kid laments the fact that although he has plenty of time to read he can't get a library card, Adam escapes being hauled off to prison, at the end of the book, for the crime of being undead merely because his parents have not rejected him, although one of his brothers fears and hates him.

As there always is with prejudice, there's fear on both sides. The zombies fear being "reterminated." There are stories of people crucifying them, burning them at the stake, even impersonating them and framing them for crimes designed to turn public opinion against them. The "real people," as they call themselves, say that the activities that the zombies design to raise consciousness about their plight are wrong because "that kind of activity just scares decent living folk." By the end of the book, it's clear that the two sides are at war because they don't wait to be introduced before labeling the other: names for the dead include "corpsicle" and "worm burger," while names for the living include "bleeders" and "beating hearts." In public, they call each other "traditionally biotic" and "differently biotic," but we see how much use that is at Aftermath where one bathroom door is labelled "Trad" and the other "Dead," even though the doors open into the same room. There is a name for sympathizers, "necrophiliacs," and also for separatist zombies, "trulydeads."

The Kiss of Life turns out to be a lipstick color, not something that will magically make the dead "normal" again. It's clear that cutting up a dead girl to see what makes her work is not the answer to finding "the secret of life." But as the song from Casablanca says, "a kiss is still a kiss." It's still something everyone desires, living or dead, and perhaps the only good answer to the question of what to do in the kind of world in which necromancy has become a reality. There's the potential for a later kiss in Phoebe's answer to the trick-or-treater who sees Adam, newly dead, sitting behind her in the kitchen and asks "That a dead guy?" She says "That's Adam."

And the kid's reply is like my response to this book. " 'Hey, Adam,' the kid yelled. The little vampire turned back to her. 'He's dead. Like me!' " Only by identifying with someone different can you understand what their life is like, and hope for something more than just tolerance, as people did watching The Laramie Project in the wake of Matthew Shepard's murder. But the humor inextricably tied to the ability to (literally) embrace difference is what humanizes the monsters, dead or alive.

1 comment:

sandi said...

nice review! I love this series and Daniel Waters has outdone himself with Kiss of Life. I really loved Karen even more by the end.