‘Some Zombie Contingency Plans’ by Kelly Link
Read it here, in about an hour (scroll down past the intro).
Thinking about using prior knowledge of an author to interpret their work…
This story is fascinating. If you’ve never read Kelly Link before, you may read it and come away thinking it’s a realist story about a deranged predator who abducts a child. But if you have read Kelly Link, you may read it and think the protagonist has just saved a child from zombies (although not the kind that eat brains).
Link writes off-kilter stories with an undercurrent of magical realism/fantasy, or which evolve into fantastical endings. Reality and fantasy often collide, so you don’t know which part of the story was real and which part not. Her characters are young adults. Her themes often include being unwanted/abandoned, difficult relationships with parents, disbelief, danger, things that are not as they appear to be, rescuing/saving and heroics etc.
The characters in this story seem to all be lying or pretending. Soap lies about his name in each part of the story; his sister Becka once acted in a zombie movie, in which she was killed and eaten; Carley lies about the house belonging to a friend, she uses coloured contacts to conceal her real eye colour, she lies about Leo not being her brother; Soap’s father is disingenuous when he says Soap should visit… Can we even trust the narrator? (After all, the title and first sentence are lies, if we interpret them literally) Did Soap really go to prison for six months? (Did he go at all? Did he go for longer?) Have we been told the truth about his involvement in the art heist? (If it was Markson’s idea to take the paintings, and to steal the Picasso, why did he only get community service, while Soap and Mark got prison time?) Most puzzling of all, is Soap’s real name Art? When he talks about ‘art’, is he talking about paintings, or himself? (Maybe ‘Art’ is the old him?)
There’s a lot of subtle repetition: Soap and his friends stole art from a party, and the story takes part at a party, at which Soap once again steals; Soap’s sister used to keep precious things under her bed, her suitcase taking up space so no monsters would fit there, and now Carley’s brother is asleep under a bed (note the strangeness of the child sleeping under their absent parents’ bed, and all it could suggest about fear and abandonment and monsters); Becka is naked in the zombie movie, and the girl at the party is naked in between trying on clothes; Mike was obsessed with icebergs (you can only see the tip, what’s underneath is dangerous, so is this about things not being as they appear?), and Becka dreams of an iceberg; Soap says the painting he stole (which the museum said didn’t belong to them) is of a forest, Mike says it’s of an iceberg, Carley says it’s the ocean, and this contrasts with the painting hanging over the bed at the party, which is of a flower garden (which Soap steals).
Soap doesn’t have positive relationships with his parents; his sister was the only one who visited him in prison; he seems to love Jenny, but she doesn’t love him back; his sole friend and accomplice has left town; he’s lonely, so goes to random parties, where drunk people talk nonsense, and steals from them; he thinks no one likes him, but they would, if zombies invaded, and he used one of his zombie contingency plans to save the day.
So, does Soap see parallels between himself and Leo? Does he think he’s saving Leo from the mindless self-serving creatures that have abandoned him (the non-literal zombies)? Will he win admiration by rescuing Leo and being the hero, much like in his fantasies of rescuing his mother and the shoppers in her store (the actual zombies)? Ironically, in her dream, Carley also wants to be the hero; another parallel.
You could analyse this story forever, see something new each time, and never get to the bottom of it.