Mon
Sep 20 2010 9:34am
Review: Dust by Joan Francis Turner

Confession: Dust (excerpt here) was my first foray into zombies. Generally turned off by sluggish attacks, scary moaning, and, you know, eating people (much to my friend Andrew’s dismay, who tries annually to get me to play zombie video games as an alternative to traditionally celebrating the new year), I thought, A different sort of Zombie novel, told from a purportedly sympathetic zombie’s point of view? Go on, give it a shot! This is a success already!

Well—partially. Parts of Dust were, in fact, zombie-strong, while parts of it atrophied, decayed, and might have strengthened the book had they been left by the side of the road like Jessie’s arm in the first few (graphic!) pages.

I am very against spoilers, so you won’t have to skim the rest while nervously nibbling on your nails. (I can make no such promise, however, against avoiding any zombie similes that I have gained with my new exciting zombie lexicon.)

I wanted badly to like the book, and not only to better enjoy the video games this December. From the first line—“Today my right arm fell off. Lucky for me, I’m left handed”—I thought, Ah ha, this is a snarky, pitch-perfect narrator I can get behind!

With no history or explanation of how the world (and Indiana, of all places!) had become a grim, not-quite-post-apocalyptic world that co-existed (no matter how warily) with zombies, Turner had me accepting that this had Always Been the Case within the first ten pages, backing it up with organic slang (“hoo” for “human”) that was so natural I never even thought of Dr. Seuss, not once. People carry flame-throwers (because why wouldn’t you??) and there are checkpoints along the main roads to ensure that the people of Indiana can come and go with as little threat of dismemberment as possible. Sure. Normal as you please. I would want another traffic checkpoint to do the same for me, thankyouverymuch. Whether Jessie and the gang are trudging under derelict overpasses to get to abandoned, wooded hunting grounds, or terrorizing humans outside of a deserted compound, I bought Turner’s world from the start.

Unfortunately, my willingness to accept this world as my own began to break down as soon as the characters were introduced. Dust is full of a large cast of undeads who lack their own defining personality traits that would help me keep them straight. Despite the fact that Jessie is the youngest in her roving gang, her friends’ voices are also unsettlingly teenager-y. Homogeneous tone and and a thin sheen of personality made it hard for me to become invested in, really, any of them. And while touching on homogeneous tone: everyone is full of expletives. Strong, pack-a-punch expletives that spray shockingly across the page like maggots flying off a dead arm flung far. The book has such a YA feel that I wanted a warning on the back for language, and this from someone whose sailor uncle has taught her to swear frequently and well. Like other aspects of the book, profanity seemed added merely for shock value, for an emphasis that comes from the universal assumption that this is how teenagers speak to get a point across without realizing that not all teenagers pontificate relentless swear-fests with reckless abandon. Had Turner explored her characters just a bit further to come up with a creative alternative, I probably could have found myself liking almost all of them.

And as I mentioned maggots, let me focus on them a moment, because Turner sure does. The descriptions of decay are not for the faint of heart. In fact, they made me wish I was reading the book anywhere but Central Park with that centipede crawling across my foot. I understand that with the territory come the varying degrees of decay, and I am not a generally squeamish person, but by page 28 I was so beyond maggoted/bowflied/centipeded/decay-gassed out and slightly green around the gills that I was tempted to scuttle back to Elizabeth Gilbert. So, fair warning: slightly too disgusting to read comfortably.

At the end, after the Big Scary Reveal was neither as Big nor as Scary as I was hoping for, and after the Suspenseful, Nerve-Wracking Climax was 100 pages worth of expected and only marginally nerve-tickling, one of the remaining characters sums up: There’s a metaphor in all this somewhere. Yes, there probably is, and the feeling that I should have been Sussing One Out distracted me for the whole book. I wanted a Metaphor or no allusion to one at all. I wanted Critique of Existential Human Failings and Their Tiresome Meddling with Nature, or I wanted a zombie book. Seeing as I read enough of Tiresome Human Failings in college, and seeing as I was diving into a new genre, I wanted a romp through the maggots with characters I could sympathize with, cheer for, and relate to, despite the marked difference in our vital signs. I didn’t want to go sifting through the insect-laden top soil to find a Deeper Meaning. Ultimately, the book fell just short of full delivering either category.

In the end, Dust was the perfect subway book for the early morning and late night commute: an appreciated lack of rigor (mortis, ha!) required in reading it, with characters I don’t mind calling acquaintances the way I still find myself occasionally in the mood to catch up with the girls on my freshman college hall. Turner has mentioned that she is currently working on a sequel, which I’ll probably pick up if it comes to fruition. Just, you know, maybe for a nice, clean, trans-Atlantic commute instead of the all-too-suggestible cockroaches of the already totally creepy NYC subway stations.

And just to run it past the professionals, I CliffsNoted the plot to zombie expert!Andrew. His verdict? “Well, I probably wouldn’t read it, you said how many pages (374 in my copy)? But if they made a game out of it, I’d definitely buy it for you for Christmas.”


Emily Kramer is a writer, blogger, full-time hostess, and part-time neurotic who’s still waiting for that intravenous coffee-drip. She has an abiding love of archery, astrophysics, fine dining, and the serial comma.

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