Saturday, October 30, 2010

Book Review: The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell-- by S.M.D.

Zombies.  They're the in thing right now next to glittering non-vampires.  They're what really goes bump in the night, because they don't have the motor function or brain activity to avoid objects.  They're hungry for your flesh, and filling up our bookshelves and movie screens.  And they're scary as hell.

Alden Bell's (a.k.a. Joshua Gaylord) debut genre novel does for zombie fiction what Cormac McCarthy's The Road did for dystopian fiction, or John Ajvide Lindqvist's Let the Right One In did for vampires:  use the clichés of the form to tell a deeply psychological, literary story.  The Reapers Are the Angels follows Temple, a teenager born into a world overrun by a zombie plague.  She doesn't remember the "good old days," because they ended years before she came into the world; but she remembers an old man who helped her and a younger brother she had tried to protect.  Now she wanders the landscape, avoiding the undead and trying to survive in a world reduced to "survival of the fittest" at its most radical.  And she's a product of her time:  untrusting, ruthless, methodical, and smart-witted.  As Temple wanders from place to place, trying to avoid her demons and understand who she is, she encounters a cast of characters that change everything, from Moses, who wants her dead, to Maury, a mentally handicapped man who doesn't understand the world around him.  And her journey will show her that there darker things in the world than zombies...

The Reapers Are the Angels is not your typical novel.  Its plot is simple and its overall feel is disconnected.  But it is also brilliant.  People who read this novel for the plot are reading it for the wrong reason.  It is about a character (Temple) and her development, about her journey to understand who and what she is, where she belongs, and how to deal with the mistakes of her past in a unforgiving world that is stuck in the dumpster and disinclined towards grieving.  A number of reviews of this novel have seemingly ignored this key element, and I suspect it is because many expect a zombie novel to be plot-oriented--never mind that many zombie stories are, in fact, character studies in a zombie-run world.  After all, The Reapers Are the Angels is set in a world framed in a way that is likely familiar to the zombie fan, and some of the events that occur throughout the book have happened before.

But the novel is about Temple, not the world, and ignoring how she views the world around her, how she forms her own form of morality without the security we are afforded every day, and how she conceives of her own kind (humanity) are indelible marks of a story that thinks beyond the mundane events of life in a zombie world.  The disconnection one feels while reading this novel is brought on by the disconnection Temple feels to the communities and places she visits.  She, as indicated earlier, was born into a post-human world.  Zombies have always been there for her, and her journey into cities, towns, farms, and so forth are journeys into the unknown.  She understands them in the same way we might understand a radically different culture (East vs. West, for example).  Even religion plays into this disconnected feeling, because while Temple was raised briefly with a concept of God, she is forced to reconcile her beliefs with the reality surrounding her, without the "support" of scripture, creating a religious framework that seems slightly alien when compared to the religious world we live in now.  All of these elements are relayed through Temple's point of view, one of the other strengths of the novel.

Bell's narrative is told in third person present through Temple's eyes.  This creates both an intimate connection to the character and to the world, since everything is happening "now" rather than in the past (again, this brings up the problem of the past; namely, that Temple does not want to relive hers and that the world is slowly developing a concept of the past that is progressively present, rather than focused on what once was).  One could even read into the use of third person, rather than first person--if disconnection from place and self is a principle element of the novel, then isolating Temple slightly from the reader by avoiding an entirely internal view maintains the disconnection for the reader as well.  There is a kind of brilliance at work here, both in the narrative that Bell attempts to create and in the language and style.  The language is reflective of Temple's limited experience and the style itself is urgent and fluid, while also being fragmented and to the point.  One gets the sense while reading The Reapers Are the Angels that the future is indeterminate and yet always present (always progressing, but going nowhere at the same time), an urgency brought out in Temple's interjections and in the stochastic "plot."

Despite its effective narrative style and display of characters, The Reapers Are the Angels did have one flaw:  its ending.  On the one hand, the book ends how you might expect (which I will not mention here); on the other, however, there is an enormous shift that pulls the reader too far into disconnection.  I found myself wishing the novel had ended at the height of the climax, because then the implied tension in the novel (and the world) would have been maintained at its worst point.  But the novel continues beyond the climax, dragging us into a new space that had never been ventured to before.  I am intentionally being vague about the specifics, though, because as much as I have issues with the way the novel ends, I still think The Reapers Are the Angels is worth reading.  The ending simply reminds one that there are no perfect books.

In the end, The Reapers Are the Angels is simply an extraordinary book.  True, it lacks the flare of originality in much the same way as Cormac McCarthy's The Road (a text that contains very little originality in terms of its world content, but makes up for it in its story of an understandably overly cautious father and a naive son), but The Reapers Are the Angels presents a well-written, deeply psychological story that we're not familiar with in a world that we are.  It is a kind of cognitive estrangement in that sense (to use Suvin's term).  It's the kind of book that zombie fiction fans should love, and a book that readers who are not familiar with the form will find engrossing (as I did).  The zombies keep coming, Temple's mind keeps bleeding, and the pages keep turning.  What else could you ask for?

If you'd like to learn more about The Reapers Are the Angels, check out the publisher's website (or wherever you buy your books).  Alden Bell can be found on his website.


SQT said...

God I loved this book. Love love love it.

TJ @ Dreams and Speculation said...

I really loved this one, too. :)

Jamie Gibbs (Mithril Wisdom) said...

I really really enjoyed TRATA. As my first post apocalyptic fiction novel, it was a great entry point to the genre for me. Though I felt that some of the supporting characters could have had a little more depth, the style of narrative and the focus on 'the journey' as opposed to 'the plot' wowed me over.

imakeart said...

I read an ARC of this a few months back and I'm still feeling its effect. It is bar far one of the best books I've read in 2010. :)