In Don DeLillo’s Mao II, the novelist Bill Gray describes the manuscript he has been working on for many years, in “a bug-eyed race” against death:
[He] saw the entire book as it took occasional shape in his mind, a neutered near-human dragging through the house, humpbacked, hydrocephalic, with puckered lips and soft skin, dribbling brain fluid from its mouth. Took him all these years to realize this book was his hated adversary. Locked together in the forbidden room, had him in a chokehold.
In a Paris Review interview William Gass said, “I publish a piece in order to kill it, so that I won’t have to fool around with it any longer…As soon as I finish something, it’s dead.” It took Gass decades to kill The Tunnel, which Robert Alter called a “monster of a book,” 600-plus pages of “adipose verbosity…and intellectual flatulence.” Bill Gray never killed his monstrous manuscript; He ran away from it instead and died soon after.
It may seem self-pitying (or self-aggrandizing) for writers to personify a manuscript, but maybe novelists can be excused if it’s a long-term project or a lengthy book, or if their protagonist and narrator are a “moral monster,” as Gass’s William Kohler, an historian of Nazism, has been described. If not quite as monstrous as Kohler, DeLillo’s reclusive, Salinger-like novelist exploits others inside and outside his “bunker.”
I wonder how John Updike came to feel about his Harry Angstrom, introduced in Rabbit Run in 1960 and killed off thirty years later in Rabbit at Rest. Rabbit had his faults, but he was not a monster, and Updike may have freely chosen to keep returning to him. Unlike Mark Z. Danielewski’s monster project called The Familiar, which the author planned to release in 17 volumes, the three novels following Rabbit Run were probably not projected by Updike when he was writing Rabbit one. Asked about the death of Rabbit, Updike has said it was an authorial imposition, but of the character’s own making: his unhealthy diet and general weariness with life.
I’ve been thinking about these matters because my fifth novel about my former basketball player Michael Keever has just been accepted. The protagonist, narrator, and putative author of the “Passing” novels that began with Passing Off in 1996, Keever is often a deceiver and sometimes a liar, but none of his acquaintances calls him a monster. In this latest novel, Passing Again, Keever and the author go on a road trip together and have some conflicts, but at the end the author character considers Keever a “friend.” So do I. I’d write a novel without Keever, then return to him because I enjoyed his non-literary voice. I have no desire to kill him off. Even if I wanted to, I might not have the opportunity, since I’m 77. Actually, it pleases me to think Keever will still be alive when I’m dead.
It’s not news that for some novelists manuscripts and characters become tedious if not monsters. Much more widespread—possibly affecting every writer—is the post-publication appearance of monsters. That is, a released book returning as a zombie to plague the author. Even though they believed the work was killed by publication, absent from bookstores, and either buried with its reviews or pulped (cremation-like), it rises to remind the author of its flaws. And I don’t mean just books about zombies such as Colson Whitehead’s Zone One but all books by writers still alive and not in late-stage Alzheimer’s.
Zone One is about a future zombie apocalypse, where Whitehead describes two kinds of zombies that suggest how dead books may affect their writers. The “skels,” short for skeletons, are your traditional, aggressive, flesh-eating zombies. They are like books that pursue authors with recriminations night and day, year in and year out, probably an extreme. More apposite are the “stragglers.” They are figures frozen into immobility and cognitive blankness, losing flesh while waiting to be “put down” like a sick pet or a bad book. The first zombie Whitehead’s protagonist remembers killing is his high school English teacher, suggesting that Whitehead might have some zombies in his past.
Zombie books don’t need to wriggle out of their jackets and climb off the shelves to make their bite felt. The author could be working safely at their desk or drowsing in bed, and remember some improbable situation or weak sentence—or even just one damned wrong word — and the presumed-dead book feels somehow still half-alive, existing like Bill Gray’s “near-human” on the author’s hard drive, waiting to be healed of its wounds, hoping to be more alive by consuming, if not the author’s fleshy brain, some of the author’s fiction-making brainwork. The author may feel publishing the manuscript was a mercy killing, performed before the flawed manuscript got any worse. Now months or years later, they may feel it was premeditated murder, the manuscript prevented from maturing (every possible revision considered, every improvement made), and dying peacefully of natural causes.
The zombie-plagued author believes nothing can be done about the book’s perceived failures and so attempts to assuage their own guilt: “I didn’t mean to kill it; I wanted to release it into the wild, give it a chance.” “It was not perfect, but it was as good as I could make it when I was that age.” “Look, I’ll admit it, I needed the money.” “I had a much better book I wanted to write.” Maybe the author gives away all of her or his copies, skips it in their Wikipedia entry, refuses to let the book be released in paperback (as Don DeLillo, my mentor, did for a time with his first novel, Americana). Or the author tries to erase the book, as did a novelist I reviewed years ago who was promoting a book as a first, although he had published one before. But the zombie remains, periodically returning despite the author’s defenses and machinations. A zombie book, unlike “real” walking and talking zombies, can’t be killed. It’s there deep in Amazon and deep in the writer’s brain. No wonder one has to destroy the zombie’s brain to kill it. One just has to hope that—unlike the buried-alive sister in Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher”—the zombie doesn’t emerge from the depths and kill the person responsible for the premature burial.
Perhaps authors should go easier on themselves, accept their earlier selves who wrote those embarrassing first and second novels, admit that even perfectionists can change their minds, be proud that they are progressing as artists. People change, minds change, skills change. The trouble is, as a friend of mine said, “the fucking book doesn’t change.” Readers are not likely to change their judgment of some weakness just because the changing author has published more books. And if readers question their own evaluation—want to give the author the benefit of the doubt—they can go to the Internet and look up reviews of the book. It may moulder away, left behind in some beach motel, but a negative review is permanent on the Internet, a source of half life for the zombie.
One wonders if the current zombie craze is screenwriters and novelists externalizing their guilt and disgust, projecting them out onto the unwitting population at large. Yes, people feel guilty about what they have not done in the past, and people may even be living with others to whom they have done guilty things, but memories and other humans don’t have the persistence of the zombie book, which will outlive—if that’s the right word—the dead author if they’re not careful to destroy journals, diaries, or correspondence confessing their doubts about the book’s quality.
I became intensely aware of the zombie book—actually four of them in my case—when I had to re-read the “Passing” novels in preparation for Passing Again, which, as the title implies, has a certain amount of repetition, or revivification. I was happy enough with the way Keever developed, and I sometimes surprised myself with the vigor of his hoopster’s voice, but I wondered why I had been satisfied working in popular sub-genres—the sports novel, the travel novel, the academic novel, the historical novel. DeLillo had done something similar—initially occupying and then transforming genres—and I tried to tell myself that I was resilient, like the shifty and ever-shifting Keever, and yet the “Passing” novels seemed like a quartet of zombies, not just books with small flaws but super zombies that could collaborate to consume the new novel.
My evasion was to make Passing Again a mock memoir, a book that initially confessed the moral and aesthetic sins of Tom LeClair but that eventually became a collage-like postmodern fiction about photography and ecology sure to be unpopular even if done with satisfactory ingenuity. I thus killed the popular autofiction before it could be a sub-genre zombie. I know I will still get visits from the first four “Passing” novels, but I’m hoping that Passing Again was written with sufficient zombie consciousness to keep it from tormenting me in the future. Of course, I know there will be mini-reminders of Again’s inadequacies. I just want to avoid being assaulted, five zombies gathered outside my window pleading for a better life. In their case, a wholly different life independent of popular sub-genres.
Some heavy-hitting authors—Arthur C. Clarke, J. R. Tolkien, Stephen King—revised novels after their initial publication. Among smaller earners, John Barth restored the original ending of his first novel, The Floating Opera, after he had published three more novels. I expect the highly original Barth was afflicted with considerable zombie-inflicted guilt because he accepted his editor’s tacking a happy ending onto an essentially nihilistic story. Keever—I’ll blame this on him—sometimes fabricates happy endings for his “memoirs” in order to make the money he always seems lacking. I never expected to profit from those Keever books, so at least I don’t have that zombie guilt. (It may well be true, though, that I chose to work with an unliterary narrator so I could blame any of my stylistic infelicities on him. In Passing Again, Keever makes just this argument against the author.)
It’s too late for me to change those four novels. I’m hoping that publishing this essay admitting my zombies will somehow diminish their presence in my brain. But I write not only for myself. I’m also writing for other novelists and for readers who may think of novelists as arrogant big-brained creators whose long-considered and refined works make readers feel inferior about their own discourse. I think I can assure you readers that—since Nabokov is dead—every writer knows a zombie or two. The next time you read an interview with some supercilious, egocentric author, try to have some empathy for them, because you know the author’s secret: the curse of the zombie book.
Tom LeClair is the author of four critical books, seven novels, and hundreds of reviews and essays in national periodicals.