Book Review: The Reapers Are the Angels

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A few weeks ago in a Top Ten Tuesday, I put zombies on the list of things I’d like to see less of in books, with the caveat that my friend was passing on an excellent zombie book for me to read. This is it, and she was right. No more zombie books, unless they are this good.
The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell is another post-apocalyptic novel. This time the apocalypse is something that happens that causes the dead to come back. The zombies in the novel stick pretty close to your standard zombie lore. They’re slow moving and dumb-witted. They want to eat the flesh of the living. You kill them by damaging their brains somehow. You become a zombie if they bite you. And then everyone becomes a zombie when they die unless your brain gets destroyed somehow beforehand. Predictable zombies; less predictable novel.

The Reapers sits in at least three different narrative traditions. The first is Southern Gothic. Think Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner. The main character, Temple, begins her post-apocalyptic journey on a beach in Florida, and we move up through the South and then out West in the course of the story. Niagra Falls and California are places Temple thinks about going, but never gets there. We only get as far west as Texas. Along the way, she meets the classically creepy aristocratic Southern family a la “A Rose for Emily,” Faulkner’s famous short story. In fact, the family in the novel has the same last name as Emily in that short story–Grierson. And as in the short story, there’s a dead family member being kept ‘alive’ in the house. Do you think Faulkner was thinking of zombies when he said, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”?
Down the road, Temple encounters a tribe of giant, clannish hillbillies, who are bit more Ewell’s from To Kill a Mockingbird, or almost any character in Flannery O’Connor’s works. They’re hillbillies who see the zombie plague as a gift from god, a sign that they’re the chosen people. There’s a lot of very strange family togetherness in this novel in general, which is also what makes it Southern gothic.

But more than that. It’s also firmly rooted in the tradition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Equiano’s Travels or On the Road. It’s a kind of quest novel, a travel narrative. Temple is a character who likes to move around. She’s not sure exactly what she’s looking for, but she keeps on looking. There are long descriptions of what it’s like to drive along deserted roads at night. A lot of descriptions of how to get from one place to another, especially when many roads are either in a state of decay or zombie infested. Temple travels by car, by foot and by train, eventually. And as in No Country for Old Men, she’s being pursued. Her pursuer is Moses Todd, a man’s whose sworn to kill her to avenge his brother’s death (there’s some Southern gothic for you). Moses Todd is her shadowy other self, the only person in the novel who seems to understand Temple. The only person she can really unburden herself to. The Reapers is a restless novel to fit its restless main character, and the restless tradition of American fiction.

Lastly, this novel is a Western, complete with a journey by train, but without the horses. And this is, I think, what makes it decidedly different from a lot of other post-apocalayptic fiction out there. The Western is a narrative genre that almost always deals with the tensions between Civilization and Anarchy, between Order and Chaos. The Western frontier represents chaos. Usually in the form of lawless bad guys. And someone usually represents order. Which will win?
And then sometimes there’s a character who helps to bring order to the world, but is not of that order himself (it’s usually a him). Think of Shane. Shane’s a good guy, but he can’t stay on the farm with the kid. He can’t settle down. The Western has all the restlessness of the travel novel in a smaller geography. When you’re heading out into a Western landscape, restlessness is taken for granted. You don’t need to travel far, just off into the sunset.

Unlike in a lot of other post-apocalyptic novels, in The Reapers Are the Angels, civilization has not completely disappeared. Temple keeps encountering pockets of it. And there’s nothing particularly wrong with it. Or not anything that isn’t wrong with the civilization we already have. It’s not dystopian. It’s just not for Temple anymore. She’s gone wild. The Wild West has changed her and she can’t figure out a way to live inside the boundaries of civilized society anymore.

Temple is a compelling character, and the dynamic between her and Moses Todd is fascinating. I read this book in less than 2 days because it was that compelling. And I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Wondering about the book’s ending. About the particular theology implied in Temple and Moses’ view of god and the universe and their place in it. Thinking about how much I like the way Temple thinks about the zombies, or meatheads, as she calls them. They’re just animals. Just dumb animals who are not an evil abomination, but as much a part of god’s creation as anyone else. And you kind of come to believe her in the end.

The Reapers Are the Angels is zombie fiction, complete with many scenes of zombie horror and zombie destruction. But it is also much more than that. And well worth a read.

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