This article appears in the May Issue of VICE Magazine.
Excerpted from The Making of Zombie Wars: A Novel by Aleksandar Hemon. Copyright 2015 by Aleksandar Hemon. Excerpted with permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Script Idea #2: An elderly contract killer with a heart condition is forced to go into retirement after he failed at his last hit. It's his only miss, so when he has a chance to redo it and restore his perfect record, he cannot say no, even if he's risking a heart attack. But then he falls in love with the target's teenage daughter. Title: The Last Heart
Script Idea #7: A blind man and a blind woman, attracted to each other by smell. On their ﬁrst date, they ﬁnd themselves at a murder scene and catch the killer's particular scent. Nobody believes them, and the perfumed killer is now pursuing them. Title: Where Do We Go from Nowhere
Script Idea #12: DJ Spinoza is a misﬁt no one understands: not his schoolmates, not his friends, not his teachers. His one dream is to DJ at his prom night and blow all those assholes away. After his radical DJ-ing results in a disastrous party at the place of the girl (Rise) he aims to hook up with, he ends up castigated. What will it take to make everyone dance and Rise fall for him? Title: Spinning Out of Control
Now, what could I do with the boy? Joshua asked himself. All human feelings are derived from pleasure, pain, and desire—but most importantly, Spin could say to Rise, from the beat. And what if he said nothing? What if he was the strong, silent type? Why this and not that? Writing is nothing if not carrying the hopeless, backbreaking burden of decisions devoid of consequences.
Afternoon at the Coffee Shoppe slipped into evening just as Joshua's caffeination reached the heights of the Rwandan plantations where his beverage originated. Hence he was burning to surf the web for Rwanda, learn some interesting facts about other cultures, and allow his current creative dilemmas to resolve themselves. Back in the day, before the worldwide web of temptation, there used to be that thing called inspiration. Then the spirit was perpetually displaced by trivia and vanity search. Mercifully, there was no internet access at the Coffee Shoppe.
Hence Joshua opened up a ﬁle with another script in perpetual development (title: The Snakeman Blues), in which a comic-book geek and a retired superhero (the Snakeman), ungainfully employed as a public-school English teacher, team up to ﬁght the evil mayor of Chicago. Joshua was incapable of deciding whether the Snakeman would die at the end or live to go back to teaching—the truly heroic activity in the city of Chicago—and if so, whether he would do so in his human or his serpentine form. The happy ending was corny, while the death was depressing, and Joshua could think of nothing in between. Besides, how exactly would a reptile ﬁght the CPD and the devious mayor?
Too hypoglycemic to type a word, which would then perhaps lead to the next word, he could only perceive the blank space below what he'd written last. (Snakeman: Don't! Let's take care of the boss ﬁrst.) Baruch the Spinner was right: Inﬁnity exhausts all reality. But ﬁnitude does it too, almost. Joshua stared at the crosswalk outside the Coffee Shoppe where nothing was happening, until he discovered some comfort in devising wisecracks for some imaginary audience at some future dinner party: How is a shoppe different from a shop? Did the Wife of Bath drink soy-milk chai lattes? Are the Middle English–speaking baristas commonly stricken with the Black Death, etc.?
He was about to open a new ﬁle to log all the shoppe cracks, when a pack of ROTC cadets appeared on the Olive Street horizon in fatefully slow motion, reminding him of that long shot in Lawrence of Arabia where in the ﬂat-line desert a speck grows into a horseman. The cadets forded the street fake-punching one another, slapping their shaven necks, no worry in their lives, save the fear of being expelled from the pack. And then he saw them in the desert, thickly coated in dust, tongue-hanging thirsty on their way to a battle where they would mature and/or heroically die, the nefarious natives offering them contaminated piss-warm water in beaten tin cups. The cadets couldn't begin to conceive of their sandstorming future; they couldn't as much as pity themselves in advance. In fact, they could see little beyond their imminent meal, beyond acting out their childish toughness, beyond playacting hand-to-hand combat at lunch break. He who has a mind capable of a great many things has a body whose greatest part is eternal, wrote Baruch. And out of the sad ROTC mindlessness the scene from Dawn of the Dead was recollected in which zombies tottered in circles around a depopulated shopping mall unable to forget their life before their undeath, their infected brains still retaining the remnants of their happy Christmas memories. A chubby cadet sensed the intensity of Joshua's inspired gaze and, as the rest of the corps trundled on to the next-door sandwich shop, stopped to grin at him from the other side of the window. His face was wide, his cheeks ﬂushed, his front teeth of uneven sizes like a skyline, his eyes lit up with the arrogant innocence of youth. In a blissful blink, Joshua saw the narrative landscape neatly laid down before him: all the endless possibilities, all the overhead and wide shots, all the graceful character trajectories blazing across the spectacular ﬁrmament, all the expanse conducive to a love interest—all Joshua had to do was stroll through that Edenic symmetry and write it down. This time, he was determined, his vision would not decompose in the computer memory with the skeletons of his other ideas: He opened, right then and there, a new Final Draft ﬁle and created the title page to stare at it:
by Joshua Levin
Chicago, March 31, 2003
Whereupon he stared at it.
Alas, unless you're the Lord himself, creation cannot be willed: Joshua needed to eat something before embarking upon it, and hence stood in line behind an overtattooed prick who couldn't decide between banana and pumpkin bread, while the barista in a Che Guevara hat (yet presumably ﬂuent in Middle fucking English) looked on indifferently. The impasse allowed Joshua to imagine a zombie biting into the prick's neck tattoos, blood splashing the ready lattes, turning them pink, the zombie oblivious to the hysterically hissing espresso machine. The revolutionary Chaucerian barista, artistically striving for the perfect foam, took an eternity to steam the milk for Joshua's cappuccino, giving enough time for the zombie apocalypse to smoothly exhaust its cataclysmic reality and sink to the bottom of Joshua's mind. Back at his shaky table, he sat munching on carrot bread until he reached a Zen-worthy level of caffeine-crash blankness. He closed the ﬁle, then the program, and then, ﬁnally, his computer, to put it in his bag, to sleep.
Substantial portions of Joshua's life had been wasted before, leaving no trace of trauma or regret. But the pressing problem on this particular Monday was that he needed to turn in some pages to his Screenwriting II workshop(pe?), which was to be conducted that night at Graham's place for the ﬁrst time. The Birkenstock cocksuckers from the Film Collective were bloodsuckers as well, per Graham, taking a shameless cut of the class fee without bothering to provide enough toilet paper. He'd been paying for it out of his pocket, until he'd concluded that his faithful workshoppers could just as well wipe their asses at his humble abode, while he could keep all the money for himself.
The pageless Joshua, equipped only with the vaguest zombie memories, was thus ensconced in a purple beanbag on Graham's living-room ﬂoor. Pretzels and a spacious plastic bottle of deﬁzzed Diet Coke crowded the coffee table. With his testicles squeezed by his twisted underwear, Joshua avoided all eye contact with the beﬂanneled Dillon, outlining some idea of his, hip-deep in the faded, sunken futon. Bega was there too, hunched at the desk in a Motörhead T-shirt, contemplating the splendorously lit Wrigley Field in Graham's window. The baseball crowd emitted a home-run roar and Bega grunted wistfully, his thick, unneatly parted gray hair conspicuously rhyming with the grayish shrub on his face. Graham interrupted Dillon's rambling to make a point by sharing a pertinent section from the script he'd just completed.
"Blessed be the amateurs!" Graham spoke in the bloated voice of one of his cardboard characters. "The triers, the failers, the shit-swimmers! Let us praise those who dream big and achieve nothing, those undaunted by impossibilities, entrapped by possibilities! They are the dung beetles of the American dream, the unsung little fertilizers of American soil."
Graham rubbed his thumb pensively against his cleft chin as he looked up at his audience for their reaction: Dillon was looming over an open notebook in his lap, writing something down furiously; Bega nodded, chewing his Bic pen to pieces; Joshua was ﬁxated on Graham, but only because his very balls were swelling in the painful squeeze. Addressing the problem required standing up and shoving his hand into his pants to free his testicles from the grip of his underwear. He was not ready for such a commitment, so he endured. The mind can imagine nothing except while the body endures.
"Just so you don't wonder what happens," Graham continued, "my boy goes on to make it big. He's gonna bottom out at the end of Act Two, but then comes back in Act Three, winning a Golden Globe."
Joshua tried to reach for his backpack, but the pain in his groin made him gasp and sit back. Graham's living room was overwhelmed with paperbacks—on the shelves, on the ﬂoor, on the windowsills—all of them dusty and invested in the magic of ﬁlm and the science of screenwriting. The only wall without the books featured a gigantic poster for The Godfather: Part II, Al Pacino looming over them like Jesus in an altarpiece.
"This is all based on a true story, gentlemen. Hollywood big shots lined up all the way to the Hills to have a diet soda with me, but I wasn't gonna let them fuck me! No, sir!" Graham ﬂashed his middle ﬁnger to the erstwhile line of big shots. "Feel free to fuck yourselves, you bunch of Weinsteins!"
Graham rocked back and forth, Hasidim-like, as he ranted, his bald crown reddening patchily like a lava lamp. Bega seemed to enjoy the rant, as he abandoned the Bic mastication for a hearty laugh. Meanwhile, Joshua rolled out of the beanbag to stand up, grimacing in the pain overriding Graham's anti-Semitic insinuations.
"Point is," Graham continued, "you're willing to learn, and that's undoubtedly fucking great. So, Dillon, to be perfectly and productively honest, that's far from the smartest idea I've ever heard. But we're gonna work on it all day long and we're gonna make it good."
Dillon wrote something down, then turned the page to write some more. Joshua ﬁnally pulled down his pants to release his balls, in the process of which his navel-eye blinked at everyone from a tuft of hair.
"What in hell are you doing?" Graham asked.
"Inadvertent self-wedgie," Joshua explained.
Graham slapped his hands, startling Dillon. "Do you hear that, Dillon? Inadvertent self-wedgie! Write that down! That's what you want your characters to say, not some anodyne bullshit about corporate greed."
The pleasure of unclasping his balls was compounded by Graham's praise, so Joshua felt entitled to make Dillon scoot over and sat down on the futon. He examined the night outside: the sparkle of the ball game all over Wrigleyville; the lit L train struggling along the Sheridan curve; the Lake Shore skyscrapers on the horizon; the endless darkness beyond. Bega shook his hair over the desk, as if trying to get something out of it. Could it be lice?
Joshua had been in Screenwriting I with Bega; they'd never talked much beyond exchanging remarks on their inchoate scripts. Bega would always project mean superiority while mocking the inane plots in the pages of other workshoppers. His plots would not be much better, but he'd protect himself by withholding their resolutions, claiming he wanted to keep them all involved.
"Is there such a thing as an advertent self-wedgie?" Dillon asked.
"There are all kinds of wedgies. Let a thousand ﬂowers bloom," Graham said. "What happens next?"
Dillon consulted his notebook. There was no writing in its pages, Joshua noticed, only doodled arabesques.
"They're like in the desert," Dillon said, "and there are like all these things. He like stops by the fear booth and these like guys ask him what his fears are and he says, it's like sharks and waves, and these like guys come out dressed as his worst fears and like follow him around. And then he takes shrooms with the goth girl, and they go on the most fantastic trip of their like life, and then he decides not to go on to LA for the job and like live with the goth girl in the desert community."
Graham watched him intently, conceptualizing the fear booth and the guys dressed as sharks and waves. "That's gonna cost a lot of money," he said.
Evidently, money had never crossed Dillon's mind—he wrote money in an empty space left between the arabesques, then underlined it twice.
"Fact: you need no money to write a script, but you need oodles to make a movie. Fact: you will have to beg for money, part of the job." Graham began rocking again. "And the Weinsteins will unleash their twenty-two-year-old dipshit suckerﬁsh to skim your life's work in one lazy afternoon. Then they'll throw at you the piddly coin they spend monthly on their chest depilation and expect you to work with that. You need to know you're nothing to them! You're a zero! Absolute fucking nothing! Zero!"
Bega laughed again—Graham's hatred of the Weinsteins seemed to amuse him to no end. Joshua's chest constricted with a gasp of guilt—he should counter the slight but couldn't. Dillon blinked in what must have been panic at the blotches ﬂoating across the expanses of Graham's cranium. He then returned to the safety of doodling: At phenomenal speed he was now turning spirals into tornadoes, which in the upper half of the page biblically connected with darkness. On the opposite, tornado-free page, there was a scene featuring stick people with speech bubbles over their O-heads, one of them grasping an oval surfboard with his stick hand. Zombie Wars, Joshua thought. Where do we go from nowhere?
"The good news is that if you could get a hunky male star to be the surfer dude you might be able to ﬁnd some dough," Graham said, having steadied himself. "Maybe that, what's his name, Hartnett?"
"I think you should make this dude more of real person," Bega said. It was surprising to hear him talk—he'd been laughing on the fringes all night. "He should be normal, little bit of philosopher, maybe loser. Like Josh here."
In Screenwriting I, Bega had wittily and deservedly, Joshua thought, picked on a Peruvian whose drafts had featured Inca gods ﬁghting sea monsters. This time Joshua said: "Me? How did I come into this?"
From a distance, they all examined Joshua, the survivor of an inadvertent self-wedgie: the body of a lightweight wrestler who'd quit wrestling after middle school; the droopy eyes that, in a more ﬂattering light, could appear contemplatively sorrowful; the slight overbite that often made him look unduly perplexed.
"To be perfectly honest, ﬁnding hunkiness in Joshua is a challenge," Graham said. "I'm just kidding."
Dillon laughed, relieved that Graham was off his back, and embarked upon drawing houses with smoke-spewing chimneys. Crematoria? Was it a subliminal—or, fuck it, liminal—way for Dillon to align himself with Graham's latent anti-Semitism? Even before the crematoria tableau, Joshua ﬁrmly believed that Dillon's chubbiness was born of devotion to obscure 90s bands, which required a uniform: ﬂannel shirt, Costello glasses, expensive trucker hat. And who comes from LA to take screenwriting workshops in Chicago? He probably came here to like live for free with his grandmother, Mrs. Alzheimer, née Loaded.
"Now that he brought your ass up, Josh," Graham says, "whaddya got? Fresh, stunning work? A roller-coaster ride of violence and sex?"
Bega leaned forward to hear Joshua, his eyebrows' grays now shimmering under the desk light.
"I don't think I have pages. But I do think I have a new idea," Joshua said. "The working title is Zombie Wars."
"What happened to DJ Spinoza?" Graham asked.
"I need to ﬁgure some things out. I can't hear the music yet."
"And what about your teacher superhero?"
"He can wait his turn," Joshua said. "The world is full of superheroes."
"Sure it is," Graham said, "as it's just about to run out of zombies."
Dillon snickered. Joshua imagined smacking him with the back of his hand. That boy could be a tasty snack for a zombie. Bega nodded, as though approving of Joshua's vision.
"OK," Graham said, with exaggerated patience, "let's pretend you don't change your mind every week. Let's pretend we don't give a ﬂying fuck. OK. What matters is how good in the room you are. So: pitch me the damn thing! I'm your fat Weinstein. Make me fall in love with you and your story! Sell me Zombie Wars! I got what you need! I got no brains, but I got oodles of money!"
Joshua inhaled. He imagined a fat Weinstein behind an intimidating desk, glowering at him; he also considered getting up and leaving, never to see Graham or endure his knee-jerk bigotry, never to write another line of dialogue. There was a solid case to be made for a screenwriting career entirely organized around avoiding the Weinsteins as well as for a life arranged around the absence of hope and ambition. But Bega was looking at Joshua as though burning to hear what he had to say, and Joshua exhaled. Anything whatever can be the accidental cause of hope or fear.
"OK. OK: The American government has a secret program to turn immigrants into slaves," he improvised. "The government creates a virus to turn them into zombies who work in factories, chained to the production line."
Now they all watched him with apparent interest. Dillon stopped doodling; the blotches on Graham's forehead merged into a solid vermilion ﬁeld; Bega nodded at Joshua again, approving of the immigrant aspect. It was difﬁcult to make stuff up in the limelight of their attention, but he'd leapt up and now had no choice but to fall.
"Things go wrong," Joshua said. "Things go terribly wrong."
"They would," Graham said.
"And virus spreads?" Bega asked. "Not just immigrants are infected?"
"Yeah," Joshua said. "The virus deﬁnitely spreads. Anybody can get infected."
"Who's gonna stay alive?" Graham asked. "Any ladies?"
"Not sure," Joshua said. "Probably. Some will pop up as I work on it."
"The virus spreads, then what?" Dillon asked. He'd stopped doodling.
"Well," Joshua said, slowly, to bide his time. "Well, the government sends out the military. To wipe them all out. The army guys just shoot them in the head and blow them up and have fun. It would be a bloodbath, if zombies actually bled. But there are so many undead immigrants that soldiers turn into zombies too, and they start killing everybody, not just foreigners. Things get crazy, killers and zombies everywhere, chaos, no one to trust, nowhere to go. It's a nightmare."
It all just came out, without effort or thinking. It felt like lying, only better, because he couldn't be caught, and he couldn't be caught because there was nothing to verify it against. Immersed in the ﬂow of bullshit, they had no reason, or time, not to believe him.
"But there is an army doctor, Major Klopstock, who believes he can beat the virus. Major Klopstock works on a vaccine..."
"Wait a minute," Graham said. "What kind of a name is that? Major Klopstock? Are you kidding me? Might as well call him Major Crapshit."
"I actually like Klopstock," Joshua said. "Klopstock could be a main hero, why not?"
"Do you really think Bruce Willis would agree to be named Klopstock? You could never pay him enough for that. Think of something else."
This was a chance for Joshua to confront Graham and defend Major Klopstock's implied Jewishness. On the other hand, the character was not quite alive yet, nor was Joshua married to the name; and strictly speaking, Graham hadn't actually mentioned his Jewishness. This was neither the time nor the place.
"OK: Major Something Else gives the vaccine to himself," Joshua went on. "At ﬁrst we don't know if he'll make it, or become a kind of zombie himself."
"And then what?" Dillon said.
"And then struggle ensues," Joshua said. "That's what the story is about. The major's struggle."
"Struggle is good. Outside the name problem, it's a start," Graham said. "Maybe the army can also ﬁght some, like, terrorist zombies, blowing themselves up like crazy. It's a good time to be thinking about all that, given that we're just about to tear a new hole in the ass of Iraq."
"I didn't actually think of that," Joshua said.
"It could be fun, believe me. We unleash the zombie army at the camelfuckers and then it all ﬂies off the handle and our undead boys come back to feed on our ﬂesh. I think that's pretty fucking good. Don't you think it's good? Let me pat myself on the back!"
Graham patted himself on the back.
"I don't know," Joshua said. "I don't want it to be too political."
"Why not?" Bega offered. "Look at situation now. Muslim enemies everywhere, every movie, everything on television, everybody happy to invade. Everything is political. Everybody is political."
"Hey, they took our towers down," Graham said. "Revenge is a dish best served with carpet bombing."
"Saddam had nothing to do with towers," Bega said. "No connection."
"People say we did it ourselves," Dillon said, "so that we could like attack Iraq and take their like oil."
The red patch ﬂared up on Graham's forehead, but then he chose to say nothing and the blotch disintegrated.
"I'd love to bullshit for a living, my friends," he said instead, "but right now you're paying me oodles to help you with your screenwriting. You got ten minutes, Vega, if you want to talk about your stuff."
"I'm just saying," Dillon said.
"Bega," Bega said. "I am Bega. As I was before." "Whatever. Vega. Bega. You can call yourself Klopstock for all I care. Let a thousand ﬂowers bloom," Graham said. "Whaddya got? Pages?"
"No pages. Pages I have when I know everything."
Bega rubbed his face vigorously with both hands and then scratched his skull, rufﬂing his hair, possibly releasing some lice. He grinned as if experiencing a spasm. Something was always happening on his face, some ﬂow of tricky mental states ever visible.
"It's basically love story," Bega said. "Man is from Sarajevo. He was happy there. He was young, he had rock group, had women. War came. He is refugee now. He goes to Germany. They are Nazis there. He works like security in disco, plays his guitar only for his soul. He drinks, remembers Sarajevo, writes blues songs. Comes 1997, Nazis throw him out. He goes back to Sarajevo, but nothing is same. Heartbreak."
"Yeah, yeah... We heard that the last time. Got something beyond that?"
"Can I smoke?" Bega asked.
"Can you smoke? Can you smoke? Hell no!" Graham said. "With all due respect."
"OK," Bega said, licking his lips. "Man has no more friends in Sarajevo. Half of his group is dead, other half everywhere. Women have husbands. Everybody talks about the war all the time. He says, Fuck it! and goes to America— country of Dylan and Nirvana and best basketball. But he lost his soul. And American women are all feminists—"
"Ain't that the truth," Graham said.
"—and he works in store that sells guitars. One day mother and daughter come in. Mother is pretty but daughter is fantastic. He plays a beautiful song for them from Sarajevo. Daughter falls in love with him. It is like in love novels, but mother calls police. He is stalker, she says, because she's jealous."
"How old is the daughter?" Dillon asked.
Bega failed to hear him. At some point his gaze drifted toward the Godfather: Part II poster and he spoke as if pitching his story to Saint Pacino himself.
"But then mother dies from pills for depression. Daughter thinks he killed her. Police thinks it's him too. Newspapers think it's him. He has to prove it's not him. He's just immigrant, but his picture is everywhere. All America hates him. Big problem."
"Is there a killer?" Joshua asked, returning the favor of attention.
"Maybe husband," Bega said. "Maybe not."
"That's pretty good," Graham said. "Immigrant detective, that's pretty cool. Like you are illegal, but you have to go around to ﬁgure things out. I would be careful about the detective clichés, though. And also grammar."
"Maybe the daughter can help clear his name," Joshua said. "I'm a little concerned about the ending."
"American movies always have happy ending," Bega said. "Life is tragedy: You're born, you live, you die."
"This could be like a European art-house movie. Which would be good because you could show tits," Graham said, pausing to picture the tits. "Anyway, we gotta go. Next time, I'd like to see some pages. Things change when you have pages. It all becomes real."
"Real is real good," Dillon said.