Post-apocalyptic collaboration: A review of Margaret Atwood and Naomi Alderman’s The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home

Reviewed in this essay: The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, by Margaret Atwood and Naomi Alderman, Wattpad, 2013.

“I dabble in modernity,” Margaret Atwood joked to George Stroumboulopoulos when pressed to explain her recent foray into online self-publishing on Wattpad. Wattpad is a YouTube for digital scribblings, a free online database where writers can instantly upload and edit their own fiction and poetry from their mobile devices, while digitally dog-earing the work of others. There’s some truth, then, to Atwood’s claim that lending her name to this young person’s endeavour, via The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, a serialized comic novel about zombies co-written with Naomi Alderman, means getting on the side of modernity. Yet as one might expect from a master of the ironic understatement, it’s a slanted sort of truth.

Young adult fiction with an old-fashioned sensibility, The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home is a good example of the sort of contemporaneousness with an asterisk that Atwood has experimented with lately. Consider her Massey Lecture series Payback: hailed as a prescient tome about debt when it was delivered at the height of the financial crisis in 2008, the series is as historically rooted as it is prophetic, glancing back to the accounting systems of the Knights Templar and the marital calculus of George Eliot novels. A similar sense of being in two times at once pervades the Zombie project, which emerged out of Atwood’s Rolex mentorship of Alderman, a British novelist and game writer.

The authors’ master-protege working relationship plays out on a formal level in the slightly veiled, alternating first-person accounts of a zombie apocalypse that make up each installment. The plot is basic, made for rapid consumption between stops on the TTC. Clio, a wealthy retiree with an Atwoodian flavour for tartness, has survived Toronto’s zombie infestation by hiding in her walled garden in Rosedale — Northrop Frye’s garrison mentality taken to the extreme. Clio has enough rhubarb pies saved up to last her through the next few years, but her isolation is soon interrupted by her granddaughter Okie, who’s stranded in Queens and calls to say that her mother has just eaten her father, and can she get a ride to Toronto?

Save for some light procedural comedy about a zombie shuttle line that only operates south of the border — Canadian content laws seem to rankle even in the worst dystopias — that’s about as far as the story goes; around the tired midsection, you wish it didn’t even go as far as that. But the fun here lies in the authors’ inspired game of telephone, with the elder stateswoman of letters voicing the eerily calm Clio and Alderman her young, breathless charge. Serialized fiction is awfully Victorian for an exercise in modern pulse-taking, but that’s part of the joy of this deliberately anachronistic, proudly slight text, the sort of thing one is meant to nibble on, as a good-natured zombie might.