The Armchair Madcap

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“Emaciated Automatons Howling in the Darkness”: Max Brooks’ “World War Z” …

… and why it’s the last zombie novel you should read before the already oversaturated genre runs its course.

I know, I know – a collective groan went up the second I mentioned the word “zombie.” The shambling undead are a horror trope that have been excessively overplayed as of late, and I’ve already dedicated [one blog post] to an anime series that did the subject right. But after years of trying to get people to give this novel a chance, and after hearing of a movie adaptation in the works, I wanted to go back and remind myself what drew me into the narrative in the first place.

I mean, why wouldn’t people give this book a chance? Its cover has artistic blood spatter and everything!

A couple of weeks ago, I insisted that zombie shows should be more about the gore and the thrill than about heavy thinking. And in a way, I still stand beside that argument: shows are a visual medium, and a lot of dialogue and exposition can really drag the pace down. I hold books to a different (but not necessarily higher) standard. I want them to challenge me to think; I want television shows and movies to be popcorn entertainment.

World War Z is the thinking man’s zombie book: “an oral history of the zombie war” that collects the stories and memories of the survivors of a world-wide outbreak. It concerns itself with the bravery, cowardice, selfishness, and sacrifice that people display when confronted with the impossible: an enemy that feels no fear.

In a way, the zombies are just an interesting backdrop to the story of how humans adapt to a horrific situation. The book is set up as a series of interviews with an international cast of survivors, from a young woman who fled north with her family to a soldier who participated in many of the most devastating battles; from a doctor who witnesses the first few cases of the disease, to the politicians who had to make the toughest calls in protecting the few people they could.

This book isn’t treated like supernatural fiction, the way one might expect. Instead, it’s given the full non-fiction treatment, from an introduction that presents everything with deadly seriousness to footnotes that clarify the statements and statistics presented by interviewees. This is not a tongue-in-cheek novel. This is a book that realizes a real zombie outbreak would be serious business.

Max Brooks has done his research when it comes to the world politics that he discusses in his book, at least well enough to convince those not involved in that field themselves. Despite being published in 2007, a lot of the social and economic issues he discusses – from America to Japan, South Africa to China, Israel to Russia – are still incredibly relevant today, and while some of the issues that seemed so pressing in 2007 have since slipped into relative obscurity, many of the speculations made in the book have proved true instead.

In here is a metaphor for the inadequacies of modern warfare. Seriously.

But again, the main focus of the novel is on the human element, and there are chapters in this novel that will absolutely make a reader bawl at the terror, loss, and helplessness that he presents in the interviews. There is a chapter on canine combatants that is a particular tear jerker, not just because it involves animals, but because of the helplessness and regret of the dogs’ human handler that Brooks captures perfectly.

World War Z isn’t completely flawless, however. It may sound like a small gripe, but most of the voices in the novel sound so similar in diction and tone that without the revealing headers between each interview, they would be almost indistinguishable. It’s not a distraction during a first or even second read, but as I was reading for review, it became much more apparent this time around.

I’m also concerned about this movie adaptation, rumors of which have been circulating for a while now, it seems. After all, a series of interviews isn’t the easiest thing to adapt for an action-hungry American audience. I suspect the movie will focus on the big set-piece battles like Yonkers, Hope, and the City of Heroes, and as a result, some of that human element I gush about so much will be lost.

Also, they’ve chosen Brad Pitt to play the role of the interviewer, changing the character’s name and giving him more of a backstory complete with wife and child. This concerns me most of all, because I always assumed the interviewer to be “Max Brooks,” not the person but the name. After all, the introduction says, in effect, “I decided to write this book from my collected interviews,” so according to the book’s own conceit, shouldn’t the interviewer’s name be the same as the name on the book? And the interviewer rarely if ever speaks on his own activities during the Zombie War, so he is really nothing more than a framing device.

Giving him a new name, a new family, and maybe even a new role? That’s no longer a framing device, and it means something else is going to be cut out in turn. But I can understand it, I guess. You don’t hire Brad Pitt at a multi-million dollar salary to make him a framing device.


And hell, it’s got to be flattering as an author to have Brad Pitt play you in a movie, name change or not.

I guess I’ll remain cautiously optimistic about the film for now, but I hope that more people give the book a chance before Hollywood does its thing.

After all, at 342 pages, this book is a one or two day read (if you’re quick about it), so there’s no reason for anyone to pass over this hidden gem. Don’t let the word “zombie” turn you away, and don’t get fooled into thinking it’s simply gore for gore’s sake. This is the thinking man’s zombie book, and it’s one hell of a good read.

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This entry was posted on July 8, 2011 by in Horror, Literature and tagged , , , .


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