The Reapers Are The Angels
Alden Bell, Tor, 304pp, hb
Faced with a post-disaster novel, the reader inevitably asks, ‘how did this happen?’ However the novel responds to this question, if only to shrug and say ‘it just did’, because the characters themselves don’t know why, the reader must nonetheless feel that the writer knows, even if he has chosen not to share. I am not convinced that Alden Bell does know why, one day, some twenty-five years before the novel’s opening, the dead began refusing to lie down, and now roam the countryside, attacking the living. Perhaps he needs no other reason than that zombies are currently in literary vogue, but Bell seems a more intelligent writer than that. The Reapers Are the Angels opens with an epigraph from Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, and he references American writers such as Steinbeck, Welty and Flannery O’Connor. Nor should we overlook Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. This novel is filled with people lighting out for the territory, and all of a sudden there is so much territory.
My impression is that Bell is not writing a science-fiction novel so much as using science-fictional ideas as background. Zombie America doesn’t properly hang together in the ways an sf reader might expect. This is a world that drifts in and out of focus, its social fragmentation as much metaphorical as it is literal. There are always working cars and petrol when they are needed; random towns inexplicably still have electricity ; there is still pre-packaged food to be found in supermarkets. There are far fewer people but although there are dark hints of things having been much worse, there is now comparatively little anxiety. People move away from zombies as they might move away from noisy neighbours.
At the novel’s heart is Temple, an extraordinarily self-possessed adolescent, travelling through the devastated southern states on a picaresque journey that traces an arc from Florida to Texas. She is nominally running from Moses Todd, who seeks revenge for her killing his brother, while also taking Maury, a huge childlike man, to his surviving family. This is not so much a plot as a reason for Temple to keep moving, providing the opportunity for the reader to tour this strange new world. Much about Temple remains unexplained She learned some of her survival skills from a man who rescued her and her brother from life in the wild when she was about ten, but claims to know little about who she is or where she comes from (at one point she casually announces that she cannot have children – why is she so certain?). She uses a different name with strangers, but given her biblical cadences (and indeed the book’s title), one must assume that ‘Temple’ carries some significance. Moses Todd at one point describes them both as ‘children of God’ and says that ‘to us the world is a marvelment’, though Temple takes most encounters with scarcely a raised eyebrow. She is the only woman in the entire novel who has mobility and agency and, apart from Moses’ brother, everyone treats her with a surprising amount of respect. By contrast, other characters, male or female, are literary types rather than individuals, wandering in from other parts of the southern gothic landscape.
This novel is so frustrating to read. So much about it just doesn’t quite add up, and I am not sure that is intentional. It has its Emersonian moments of transcendental beauty balanced by Faulkneresque grotesqueness but sometimes the reader really needs the author to contrive a word or two of explanation. It has a plot element that I suspect the author might suggest is a coup de theatre whereas to me it seems like an elementary compositional flaw (to say more would be to destroy the novel’s denouement). And much as I like what the author is trying to do I feel he too often relies on the kindness of readers to get him through the difficult narrative passages between the keenly observed set-piece encounters.