Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates

Zombie is a 1995 novel by Joyce Carol Oates. It’s the epistolary story of Quentin P., the under-achieving son of a college professor who is out on parole after being put on trial for sexually molesting a teenager. Quentin is under the supervision of his worried parents and his court-appointed psychiatrist, but none of them have realized that he’s graduated to serial killing and is trying to find the right victim to lobotomize and turn into his personal zombie sex slave.

One of the things that really struck me about the book is the style of Oates’ first-person narration through his diary entries. I couldn’t help but compare Quentin with two other mentally ill first-person protagonists: Imp in Caitlin Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl: A Memoir and Hildred Castaigne in Robert Chambers’ “The Repairer of Reputations.” The story in Zombie is more like The Drowning Girl in terms of Quentin interacting with his family and therapist and being more impaired at some times than others. But Quentin as a character is far more like Castaigne than good-hearted Imp: proud, secretive, and sadistic. Still, Oates is able to make him a consistently compelling character despite his grotesquely chilling thoughts and behavior.

The thing that most impressed me was Oates’ ability to use and control a first-person voice that is very clearly not her own. Oates makes this bit of artistry look easy. When Quentin is medicated, he writes in short, confined, passive sentences that evocatively convey how the psychiatric medications he’s taking are restricting him:

Mr. T__ asks questions like rolling off a tape. YES SIR I tell him NO SIR. I am employed. On a regular basis now. Dr. E__ is the one who prescribes the medication. Asks me questions to get me to talk. My tongue gets in the way of my talking. Dr. B__ throws out a question as he says to get the guys talking. They’re bullshit masters. I admire them. I admire them. I sit inside my clothes staring at my shoes. My whole body is a numb tongue. I drive everywhere in my Ford van. It is a 1987 model, the color of wet sand. No longer new but reliable. It passes through your vision like passing through a solid wall invisible.

There are moments of the mundane (“bullshit masters”) and the poetic (“My whole body is a numb tongue”) in these passages. But when Quentin has gone off his medication, the rhythm and flow of the his narrative changes:

Shining the flashlight which is the CARETAKER’S flashlight into the corners of the attic. Where shadows leap like bats. Smiling to see how, when light moves, light you hold in your hand, bright as starlight you make shadows leap. The shadows are there all along. BUT YOU MAKE THEM LEAP.

The poetry is more pronounced here, but so is the aggression and the sense of excited power. Quentin still sees the world in ugly tones, but when he’s off his medication the passages have a real sense of purpose and urgency. There’s real darkness here.


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