December 20th, 2010


World War Z

Yeah, I know, the New York Times bestseller that almost singlehandedly created the current zeitgeist of zombie lit, the novel every friend of mine told me I had to read when it came out, and it only took me four years to get around to it. It was worth the wait.

Not that I'm such a big fan of zombie lit. As monsters, they're much better suited for film, in my opinion, since they're so much scarier to experience visually than through the printed word. Plus, the whole subgenre has become so oversaturated and so by-the-numbers that it really turns me off. (And don't get me started on the adding-zombies-to-classic-literature craze. The first time was clever and original. Everything after that, however, was stale, cheap, rushed, and annoying.)

Luckily, Max Brooks' World War Z manages to avoid the many zombie fiction cliches that leave me so flat. For one thing, Brooks seems less influenced by George A. Romero than he is by the oral histories of World War II, in particular Studs Terkel's The Good War. This attention to the literary, as opposed to the cinematic, shines through in how detailed Brooks' accounting of life during wartime is, mostly from the military viewpoint, though occasionally from the civilian, as well as in his outstanding job of creating many different voices to tell a single story. As an oral history, World War Z encompasses the statements of dozens of different characters, and in order to feel authentic each one needs to sound unique. In this, Brooks succeeds admirably.

Because zombie fiction is so often presented as apocalyptic, one cliche that has always turned me off is that of the lone survivalist, the character so many of the more rabid zombie fans seem to identify with. (More than one author friend of mine has written zombie novels, and they've all received that same creepy "I would totally survive a zombie holocaust because I've got guns and no conscience" email from a fan. A thesis could be written about this pathology.) Brooks takes the lone survivalist to task brilliantly with characters the military refers to as LaMOES, people with a "Last Man on Earth" complex, who, because of their inept macho attitudes, are frequently more dangerous to the surviving population than the zombies are. And it's pronounced exactly how it looks. Lame-os.

Brooks has created an amazingly rich world in this novel. It's not just people vs. zombies, it's a years-long military effort with its own consequences and byproducts. Among his more brilliant creations are the quislings, people who snap and decide they're zombies even though they're still alive; the ferals, abandoned or orphaned children who grow up in the wilderness or in desolate cities to become dangerously wild adults; and the F-critters, the offspring of abandoned dogs and cats who have evolved into nearly unrecognizable creatures in order to survive in this new world. Brooks' imagery is also pretty damn cool, especially when he writes about the underwater campaigns, with seafloor-dwelling zombies swarming over submarines and such. Truly amazing stuff.

If there's one criticism I would make about World War Z it's that what makes it so original and intriguing might also be its greatest weakness. In presenting the story as an oral history--essentially a series of connected short stories, really--there are no primary characters to follow through the entire novel and the narrative flow is fractured. In other words, World War Z, for all that's so wonderful about it, is way too easy to put down for extended periods of time, which I'm sorry to say I did.

Though that doesn't mean I didn't love it. World War Z is an incredible accomplishment and one of the best books I read this year. It's almost enough to get me interested in zombies again.


Other Things I Discovered During Today's Spring(ish) Cleaning

My bar mitzvah tallis.

Some papers I wrote in college on my Magnavox Videowriter: the height of word processing technology in 1987!

A box of old DarkTales Publications stuff, including flyers for Wayne Allen Sallee's True Tales of the Scarlet Sponge, some mailing envelopes with the DT logo on them, and my old DT business cards.

A stash of leftover Bram Stoker Award Weekend 2006 program books.

A fax machine. A fax machine, people.