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J. C. Oates' 'Zombie': everyday monstrosity


"Zombie," by Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Dutton Press. 181 pages. $24

The morning after reading the latest product from the JoycCarol Oates fiction factory, I awoke to the radio news of the French teen-ager who had bludgeoned his family to death, then proceeded to slaughter eight other people. Granted, this youth was a mass murderer as opposed to the sort of serial killer Ms. Oates dissects in "Zombie." But the esthetics are the same.

"Zombie" takes the reader into the mind of a 31-year-old man possessed by the demons of ultimate control and domination. Demons that can be appeased only - and only temporarily - by homosexual rape and by murder. Why has Ms. Oates given us this thoroughly unsettling, and at times horrific, foray into a psychological hell? She seems to have adopted and adapted the George Leigh Mallory philosophy of, "Because it is there." But what works for mountaineers is not necessarily applicable to writers. Some heights are better left unchallenged; and some depths, unprobed.

This is not the reaction of a squeamish prude, but rather someone already sick to death of the surfeit of everyday violence. The innocent victims stalked and slain are on the nightly news. Emotional and moral cripples are the new celebrities. Must a writer of Ms. Oates' vast and prodigious talents contribute to this unhealthy fascination with the warped?

According to the liner notes, "Zombie'" is the work of "a master storyteller with the imaginative courage to think the unthinkable, accept the unendurable, and say what has never been said so searingly and scarily. . . ." The "master storyteller" description is appropriate, but in the context of modern American society, the topic is neither unthinkable nor unendurable. It is seemingly daily fare.

Ms. Oates' anti-hero, Quentin P., bears a striking resemblance to the real-life psychopath called Jeffery Dahmer - right down to the bodies in the bathtub and the "trophies" from the victims. Both are Midwesterners of the same age, the product of "decent" families, outwardly nondescript. From childhood on, they felt - and were - rejected by their peers. But if merely being an outsider led to murder, the homicide rate would be even higher than it is.

For whatever reason, there is something missing in the mental makeup of the monstrosity called serial killer. The ability to form and sustain a meaningful relationship, particularly a sexual one, is beyond their capabilities. So they begin to live in a fantasy world. And eventually to make that world real by acting out the fantasies.

Their desperation lies in a sadistically twisted version of that basic human need to love and be loved, spewing from their psyches as a compulsion to totally control another. The title "Zombie" comes from the ultimate object of desire, a mindless but worshipful creature. Writes Quentin P. (for this book is his journal), "A true ZOMBIE would be mine forever. He would obey every command & whim. .. . His eyes would be open & clear but there would be nothing inside them seeing & nothing behind them thinking. Nothing passing judgment."

Dahmer tried to create "zombies" by drilling holes in his victims' heads. Quentin P. uses an icepick and a medical text on transorbital lobotomy.

Ms. Oates' portrayal of psychopathic thought processes is unquestionably brilliant. But, particularly due to the detailed descriptions of the crimes, the reader is left with an uncomfortable sense of voyeurism. And to what purpose?

Perhaps I am too easily disgusted. I wouldn't be surprised if "Zombie" is a best-seller. Some of us can't get enough of this sort of thing. But then, some of us have had enough for some time.

Karen Zautyk is a member of the editorial board of the New Yor Daily News. Previously, she was a suburban news editor and copy editor for the News. In addition to writing editorials, she does travel articles and humor columns that are published nationally.

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