By Joan Frances Turner
Faithful readers of this blog will know that I am a sucker for all things zombie. I've been a fan of zombie lore since I was in junior high school and it has been a pet obsession for the past three decades with no apparent end in site. I don't profess to be an expert on the subject, but I can talk knowledgeably and one thing I love to talk about is what's wrong with the zombie sub-genre. Over the years, I have developed a singular pet peeve in relation to my obsession: that of the endgame in the zombie story arc. It's a dead end (pun intended). Once a writer goes all in with a zombie apocalypse, it is danced near impossible to write an ending that doesn't involve the demise of the human race or the defeat of the zombie hordes. Just look at the situation Robert Kirkman finds himself with The Walking Dead comic and television series. How is he supposed to find an end to that story that doesn't involve the eventual death of all his human characters?
Zombie lore has long been in need of a kick start. Something more nuanced. Something more creative than the simple local militia walking through the field armed with rifles picking off wayward corpses (and giving poorly scripted interviews with local newscasters: "They'll all messed up!"). I was waiting for someone to take zombie lore to another level.
To a certain extent, there is a generation of writers doing just that. Experimenting with the genre, chewing it up and spitting out all sorts of interesting variables to the venerable zombie story. One of my recent favorites is Bob Fingerman's excellent novel Pariah. Another is Joan Frances Turner's exquisite 2010 novel, Dust. At the time, I heaped a good amount of praise on Turner's take on the zombie sub-genre and how she was able to finally add something interesting to the typical war of attrition that all zombie apocalypse stories eventually devolve into. I made some pretty salient points, I must admit, but since I'm not nearly Gore Vidal-ish enough to quote myself, you'll have to suffice with Douglas Preston's decidedly succinct review: "Joan Frances Turner has done for zombies what Anne Rice did for vampires." It's not a perfect encapsulation of Dust or what it entails, but if you insist on not clicking on my review, it will have to do in a pinch. Turner made zombies both more terrifying and more human at the same time. Pretty nuanced, if you ask me.
So here we are in 2013 and Turner has released the much anticipated (at least by me) sequel to Dust: Frail. If you haven't read Dust, I would recommend you read it before attempting Frail as the story picks up at the end of the Dust narrative and Frail refers back to many of the characters and events in Dust without explaining them in the sort of detail that would make anything clear.Turner, I suspect, is assuming that you read the first novel before cracking Frail. Turner takes the zombie lore into the stratosphere in her first book, so jumping into the second will leave you utterly lost, so forewarned is forearmed.
Frail is the first person account of a human named Amy. Left for dead by her mother, Amy is one of the few humans left following the zombie apocalypse and the subsequent evolution of a second species of undead creatures (known in the novels as exes) who are neither human nor zombie but have appetites larger than both (metaphor for crass consumerism, anyone?). The exes are now the clear masters and humans (or frails) have been relegated to slavery and/or food. Amy has managed to stay away from both the zombies and the exes throughout the winter but after being attacked by a starving dog in a small Indiana town, she is rescued and befriended by Lisa, an ex with a heart of gold (who just so happens to be the sister of Jessie, the protagonist zombie from Dust). Amy and Lisa embark on an, at times, surreal journey into what is left of their world and in the process uncover many of the secrets kept hidden by the local Thanological Laboratory, which, in turn, reveals the truth about zombies and exes.
I want so badly to tell you that Frail picks up where Dust left off and fleshes out (pun intended) the intriguing mythology that Turner concocted in her first book. and to be fair, Frail has some legitimately terrifying and disturbing moments, some of which I will carry for years. But I must admit that much of the book is a slow, plodding melodrama between the trails and exes, much of which is shrouded in unnecessarily convoluted dialogue. The characters often talk over Amy's head about things she doesn't understand which, in turn leaves the reader in the same situation. I was literally lost for the fist two thirds of the novel because not a single character was able to make a direct statement about what the hell was going on. Because of this, the novel seems to tread water interminably.
Furthermore, Frail's characters are depressingly forgettable. It's funny that over the years critics have derided the zombie sub-genre as two-dimensional, that zombies make terrible villains due to their utter brainlessness. lack of character, motivation, no possibility of deconstruction. Zombie stories could only be as good as the human characters involved. So it is ironic that Dust, with it's cast of zombies, has infinitely better characters and characterization than Frail which has no zombie characters whatsoever. I never got any sense of Amy as a character other than she was slowly losing her mind, and she was the protagonist. The rest of the characters were a formless mass of dialogue that ceased to make sense very quickly. Perhaps Turner has a knack for writing from the perspective of a zombie and human frailty (pun intended) is an art best left to others.
The confusion of this novel is all too much, butt does let up. Toward the end of the novel when much of the narrative fog begins to lift, Frail begins heaping on fresh piles of new confusion in anticipation of a third book in the series (no spoilers). So while Frail does (eventually) clear up a number of outstanding questions from Dust, it does so in such a meandering way that I fear many readers will give up (or cease to care) long before the reveals.
I know I did.
it's a shame, really, because deep within Frail's narrative curlicues and cardboard characters there lies a very compelling story but it will take a Herculean effort on my part to muster the enthusiasm to read the third book in this series.