Character and Readership Intimacy in Percival Everett’s Zulus

In the book, Zulus Percival Everett arranges chapters with abecedarian excerpts. The theme of this abecedarian arrangement is a motif in the book and in the class. Alice, the protagonist of the novel Zulus, is an ambitious girl. Ambition is only a dream if it is not matched with a smart goal. Through the course of the novel, Alice sets goals consistently. Goal setting is symbolized through the abecedarian motif, while plot structure serves as the readers template for expectative goals that is commonly ingrained in readers. Together, the protagonist and the reader experience unrealized goals, thus creating the potentiality of intimacy between the reader and the character.

In our class, Professor McCoy has emphasized the influence of growth mindset on goal setting and achievements. Before we began our discussion on Zulus, Professor McCoy brought us to the gazebo to look out at the horizon line. The horizon is a metaphor for the most ambitious goals people possess, thus the horizon is representative of the last letter of the alphabet. Professor McCoy wanted us to take the hike to look at the horizon because, beyond its connection to the book, in our class she wants us to grow as individuals intellectually and personally. In order to do this, individuals must be cognizant of the goals they have for themselves. When one is aware of the goal they possess, they can then assess whether it is a smart goal. In an emotional wellness course I took in the past, smart goals are memorized through the acronym S.M.A.R.T.. Given this acronym, smart goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. Alice makes goals consistently through the text creating a level of hope within herself and for readers who want to see her succeed.

The reader along with Alice is stuck and helpless over things of which neither has control or the power to change what haunts them. On page 185, Alice’s exploded body’s decapitated head is placed inside her cavernous body that remains at the rebel camp. Alice’s decapitated head is placed inside her body looking at her interior walls where the alphabet is written a through z.  Inside her body, Alice’s head is stuck looking at the letters of the alphabet reading it from start to finish over and over again. Alice feels distressed and miserable in this position, so much so that she wishes she were dead. It wasn’t until class that I understood fully how her feeling of distress was induced by the alphabet, for her predicament in that old mind and in her new body is that of hopelessness and helplessness. The nuclear war has made the world inhabitable and unhopeful for future generations of humans, but Alice had been in denial of this for the large duration of the book. Therefore, looking at the alphabet reminds her of her shortcomings and of the impossible goals she may be or had been in possession of. In the beginning of the book, Alice was hopeful of what being a rebel could do for her life, so she made it a goal of hers to join the rebel cause. However, being a rebel and living in a rebel camp wasn’t as she envisioned. Ultimately, Alice’s only smart goal that is followed through happens to be a failure for herself, for pulling the lever to kill the human species through toxic gases kills all but her pervious body’s decapitated head. The fatalist mindset she acquires from Kevin causes her to make a goal that produces no change to her situation because she remains alive through the decapitated head. As a result, she fails to achieve her goal of eradicating the earth of humans.

Along with Alice, the readers have a goal in mind that goes unfulfilled in the course of reading the novel. The readers are likely to be haunted by a narrative expectation on the author to provide moral closure to the story. As discussed in class, most books, but not all, follow the Freytag’s plot pyramid. The plot pyramid in its simplest form consists of an exposition, rising climax, climax, falling action and a resolution. In this book, there is no falling action or resolution. Instead the lever is pulled and everyone is killed, that is except for Alice’s decapitated head. All of Alice’s goals, up until that climatic choice, were attempts to live her life in the best way, despite living in a nuclear ravaged earth. The climactic moment of deciding to take this choice away from herself and all other humans can be discombobulating for the readers. When the climatic action occurs no falling action or resolution is presented, thus making the readers possible goal for a typical plot structured story to be gone unfulfilled.

The experience of reading the novel in conjunction to an understanding of the main characters hopelessness has the potentiality to foster empathy by immediacy of feeling and identification with Alice’s own predicament. Readers don’t have control over the structure of a story, nor do they have control of the contents of the story. Keeping in mind a reader’s biases and motives in reading literature can present new ways of interpreting it. For instance, readers may want to use Alice like the rebels in the camp wanted to use her, or exploit her fertile body. The rebel camp wanted to imprison her for her messiah baby, while the readers wanted to use her to make the story end as most stories do, tied in a ribbon and without ambiguity. The striking similarity that can be made between the two groupings can provoke the reader to question their own moral integrity. Moreover, readers who found themselves condoning the rebels may be subject to the same criticism if they find themselves angered and unsatisfied by the plot structure, specifically the ending. Ironically, despite being in the same goal failing state to Alice, readers may be less empathetic to her failed goal because, as she is written, her failure brought the failure of a reader’s plot structure goal for a Freytag conclusion.

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