‘Zombie’, by Chuck Palahniuk
Read it here, in about half an hour. (Note: the story contains sexual elements, and mentions of suicide.)
Thinking about themes and ideas…
If you don’t know Palahniuk’s work, he writes fucked up, alienated characters in a dirty reality, with a big splash of irony. ‘Fight Club’ is a classic example; Palahniuk mocks macho consumer culture and victimhood, using casual sex, violence and an amazing unreliable narrator to do so. This short story is typical of his work in terms of style, ideas and themes.
First of all, this story is narrated by a teenager, which is apt for a satirical tale about a new trend young people have begun: self-inflicted electrical lobotomies. That this is satire is evident from the first paragraph, which features dry humour and irony to tell the reader: ‘It was Griffin Wilson who proposed the theory of de-evolution. … He was the first to take the Great Leap Backward’. The references to Darwin’s theory of evolution, and Mao’s economic improvement campaign the Great Leap Forward, emphasise that the narrator is a school student – an intelligent one – who not only has knowledge of science and history, but whose English teacher would be proud of the puns he’s created using that knowledge. OK, I’m biased because I’m an English teacher.
The limited omniscient unnamed narrator cleverly gets around the fact he wasn’t present when the first lobotomy occurred, by using the reported speech of fellow student Tricia Gedding, who had faked illness to get out of a test – ‘She said she heard the loud beep! but didn’t think anything of it.’ – and using supposition to determine that Griffin ‘must have taken … [the defibrillator] down and read the instructions.’ But why on earth would this 16-year-old kid stick defibrillator electrodes to his head and press the button?! As an opening it’s a great hook; you have to read on to find out.
Ideas and themes relating to the pointlessness of modern life, and alienation from the self and society, are evident in the story. The narrator takes swipes at the use of SAT results to determine a child’s future, the prevalence of school shootings in the US, drug culture, pop culture, the media, the elusiveness of happiness, and teenage acne. Palahniuk uses sarcasm, sexualised content and an outlandish situation to get his point across, which will not be to everyone’s taste, but these are genuine issues he’s raising, especially for today’s young people. I’m glad I’m long past being a teenager!