01/06/2012. Contributed by Patrick Mahon
pub: ChiZine Publications. 216 page paperback. Price: £11.99 (UK), $15.95 (US), $17.95 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-926851-58-7.
check out website: www.chizinepub.com
James Marshall is a Canadian writer of literary and speculative fiction. His debut short story collection was shortlisted for two awards in 2005. 'Ninja Versus Pirate Featuring Zombies' is his first novel. It is published by the independent Canadian small press ChiZine Publications, which specialises in the weird and surreal end of speculative fiction.
My experience with this book did not start well. When the first five words on the back cover blurb are 'Apart from her big breasts...', you immediately get the feeling that subtlety is unlikely to be a major feature of the book. Add to this the fact that the publishers have chosen to capitalise one phrase in every sentence throughout the rest of the blurb and you wonder if the book is being marketed exclusively to people with Attention Deficit Disorder.
However, once I started to read the story, there were some good signs. First off, with the exception of the blurb on the back cover, the book is extremely well put together with none of the quality concerns that arise with some small presses. Second, Marshall is clearly a gifted wordsmith. The book is filled with highly amusing puns and clever word play. For example, in the last two pages, the hero muses to himself, 'Sometimes I forget I'm a prophet. Following a bunch of unnervingly accurate predictions, mostly about the outcome of cock fights, I had to relinquish my amateur 'phet' status and was forced to turn pro.' Jokes like this occur throughout the book and I genuinely laughed out loud on more than one occasion.
The problem is that amusing one-liners do not make a novel. In the traditional sense, a novel requires characters and a plot. On the surface, this book has both. However, the characters are pretty two-dimensional and the plot is difficult to find.
Starting with the characters, they are mostly caricatures. The hero is a sixteen year-old called Guy Boy Man. No, really. His name is obviously silly, as he himself acknowledges early in the story by insisting that he is not a porn star. The other main characters' names are equally absurd. Guy's fifteen year-old girl-friend is called Baby Doll15. His best friend is an African-American ninja called Sweetie Honey, who surprises everyone but the reader late in the book by admitting that he's a closet homosexual. The problem here is that these characters are image-conscious teen-agers who spend their time trying to impress everyone else, yet none of them are even slightly embarrassed by their ridiculous names. However, the name issue is not the major problem. Fundamentally, I found it difficult to really care what happened to any of the main characters because I didn't feel invested in their stories. They mostly come across as vacuous, self-interested middle-class teen-agers with very few genuine problems. Guy Boy Man has set himself the admirable task of ridding humanity of the zombie menace but only because it will get him laid.
Turning to the plot, this is supposed to be a zombie story but I couldn't work out the rules. Early in chapter one, Guy Boy Man murders both of his parents with a hatchet after he overhears them discussing with his school teacher the likelihood of him failing the upcoming Zombie Acceptance Test. This high school test determines whether you become a zombie or the zombies' food. He has concluded that his parents are zombies so it is fine for him to kill them.
The problem is that the plot device of the test doesn't work in any literal way. Later in the book, we see Guy's girl-friend, Baby Doll15, coming out from the Zombie Acceptance Test as a slathering mindless zombie, having just passed the test. How does that work? Clearly it doesn't. So we must assume that Marshall expects us to read the entire zombie concept as an ironic and knowing commentary on growing up, with zombiehood being what happens to you when you leave education, get a job and become a boring, responsible citizen. In which case, Guy is a serial killer, having brutally murdered both of his parents just for being adults.
It is, of course, possible to tear up all the rules if you are writing cutting-edge experimental literary fiction in any genre. ChiZine Publications' website clearly indicates that they promote such experimental endeavours, for which I applaud them. However, as a reader I still want any novel I read to take me on a journey I understand with characters that I care about. My problem with 'Ninja Versus Pirate Featuring Zombies' is that Marshall's obvious strengths with word-play are let down by characters I didn't believe in and a storyline that made no sense to me. I will keep an eye out for what James Marshall writes next, as he clearly has potential. However, I'm afraid I found his first novel to be a disappointment.
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