Book Review: Handling the Undead
There are thousands, if not millions, of writers in the world whose names will never be known and whose novelist careers will never earn them enough to make a living. And then there are the lucky few who receive the critical or market acclaim that elevates them to an entirely different level. John Ajvide Lindqvist has reached that level, at least momentarily.
His debut novel Let the Right One In was a bestseller in Sweden, and the movie adaptation by director Tomas Alfredsson was one of the best movies of 2008. It’s not too often your first book is both a bestseller and adapted into a worldwide hit.
Lindqvist’s second novel, Handling the Undead, hits bookstores today (conveniently on the eve of the October 1 release of the American adaptation Let Me In). Like Let the Right One In was a reinvention of the vampire genre, Handling the Undead is an attempt to revise zombies.
As many readers of FilmJabber know, I am a big zombie movie fan. It’s not that I’m the kind of person who would litter my Top Ten Movies of the Year lists with zombie flicks, but I truly believe the zombie genre is one of the most consistent genres out there: most of the mainstream zombie movies that make it to theaters these days are smart, exciting and gory. Don’t believe me? Go back through the big zombie movies that have received major theatrical releases in recent years and tell me that most of them weren’t solid, critical hits.
This discussion may seem off tangent, but it isn’t. Vampires are easy to modify to fit the confines of a story; they can be cold and deadly as in Interview with the Vampire or bright and sparkly, like in Twilight. Let the Right One In shaped vampires within the confines of an adolescent relationship, but it wasn’t a drastic departure from the creatures we know and love.
Handling the Undead, however – and unfortunately – is a huge departure from what people think of zombies. It’s a valiant effort and one that Lindqvist almost pulls off. But he doesn’t and it ultimately fails.
In the book, Lindqvist explores the lives of several marginally connected individuals who are all deeply affected by a miraculous reawakening of the dead. After a strange electrical flash, several thousand recently deceased Stockholm residents awake much to the grief, shock, and in some cases excitement of their relatives. The undead are not the zombies in the movies, however; they don’t eat flesh and their disease does not appear to spread, but they are a major political, moral and philosophical headache for those who have to deal with their decaying carcasses. The book’s characters represent that range of emotions, from a man who knows his wife is no longer alive and wishes her gone to a grandfather who is trying to hold onto the nonexistent life of his shriveled grandson.
The concept is intriguing and unbelievably intelligent. It just isn’t executed very well.
The biggest problems is the characters, and the amount of them. Ensemble stories are challenging to pull off, especially in books, unless you tie them together at the end somehow. Lindqvist’s Handling the Undead is just over 350 pages and yet deals with several character arcs that are only connected by emotional themes. Their relation to one another is minimal at best, but unfortunately their individual stories aren’t interesting enough to catapult the reader from start to finish. Let the Right One In (the movie – I haven’t read the book) was a success because it focused on its central characters, developed them and made us care about what happened to them. That doesn’t exist in Handling the Undead.
There are some interesting characters scattered throughout, but there are plenty more that I didn’t care about. Their motivations are inexplicable and their rationale hard to fathom. Many of the characters are weird and hard to relate to, and while it’s fine to have strange people in your story, Lindqvist tries to cast them as ordinary people spurred into action by extreme circumstances. Perhaps it’s because I struggled to get invested in the story, but I even had trouble remembering which characters were which.
Complementing the issue, Lindqvist doesn’t build to a satisfying conclusion. There’s a moment two-thirds through the book where it looks like things are suddenly going to build to something amazing, but it never pans out. He just fails to build to a satisfying physical and emotional conclusion, primarily because he has so many characters to deal with. There are moments that hint at what could have been, but they never materialize.
Lindqvist’s writing style doesn’t help. I’m not a book critic so I won’t pretend to analyze it to any depth, but little about his words motivated me to read further. Even during the climax the writing at times sucked the life out of excitement, as if he was so caught up in delivering something different he forgot to stop and think whether he was delivering something good.
Handling the Undead is not a terrible book. It presents zombies in a new and intriguing way, even if that new and intriguing way isn’t as good. There are glimmers of greatness and momentary flashes of the epic this book could have been, but Lindqvist keeps things too personal and emotional for the raw story to sink its hooks into the reader.
I’ve read a lot of great books recently and Handling the Undead isn’t one of them. Go read World War Z instead.
Handling the Undead FilmJabber rating: C