World War Z by Max Brooks
I’m terrified of zombies. I’m so terrified of zombies, in fact, that my subconscious can no longer muster any enthusiasm for the walking dead; my last zombie nightmare involved me staring out into a supermarket parking lot at the undead, reasoning that I could “totally make it” to my car. It kept me from watching Shaun of the Dead and reading World War Z when it came out in high school—I remember opening it to a bit about dogs dying horribly, and immediately shutting it. But I’ve been craving a bit of horror recently, to my utmost surprise, and Windows 95 Tips hasn’t updated in a month. At least World War Z ended more or less happily, right? (Wrong.)
World War Z is an oral history of the Zombie War, as collected by Max Brooks a few years after the events of that devastating tragedy. Interviews range from the Chinese doctor who discovered Patient Zero to the US soldiers involved in the utter failure at Yonkers to one of the few successfully rehabiliated feral children, just to scratch the surface. From these personal narratives, the story of the Zombie War comes alive on human terms—the toll it exacted from those who survived it, and the toll it exacted from those who sacrificed themselves for the survival of humanity.
The obvious inspiration for World War Z is the works of Studs Terkel—while The Good War is the obvious analog, I’ve only read Terkel’s Hard Times. But the methodology is the same; using personal narratives to construct a view of a macro event on a micro level. (It’s the same tactic George R. R. Martin is using in A Song of Ice and Fire to utterly incredible effect.) Brooks is using this to frame his work as horror satire, much like his second obvious inspiration, George Romero, did with The Night of the Living Dead, and ground it in a different way. Zombies, before their takeover of the American pop cultural consciousness, were still a little embarrassing to the mainstream, despite the metaphorical potency of zombies, which we’ve all more or less come around to. Framing it thusly allows Brooks and his readers to focus on the real meat (heh) of the story: its vicious satire of politics and American pop culture.
Reading it six years later, this dates World War Z. When it’s on, it’s on—Brooks has little love for isolationism and those who would take advantage of innocent people, showing and skewering the worst of humanity as they face the only enemy who could ever offer them total war. (The interview that explains this is one of the best sections of the book.) Brooks has a clear message and delivers it in such a way you don’t realize until you start dissecting it later. (And no, I shan’t stop with the zombie imagery.) But it’s starting to show its age, which can distance readers, which can hurt the impact of the satire (“Oh, this could never happen”), but it’s always difficult to balance the general and the specific well. A perfect example is Brooks’ interview with a celebrity bodyguard, who recounts several celebrities holing up in a safe house together and broadcasting themselves to the world, which invites not zombies, but regular people desperate for supplies. On its own, as a commentary about fame, celebrity, and excess, brilliant, but Brooks’ insistence on using thinly veiled real figures (Ruben Studdard, Paris Hilton, Larry the Cable Guy, Bill Maher) keeps it firmly embedded in its own time period. He fares a bit better with the politicians, but the urge to play detective distracted me from the story at hand.
It’s a bit of a shame, really, because there’s real horror in here; the kind that keeps you up at night not because the zombies will get you, but because humans are capable of such evil. And, conversely, there’s real hope here (although it’s heavily implied that everything is headed towards extinction; either that or the zombie virus is going to be in the water supply very soon); two stories, which are really one, focus on a blind gardener and an otaku who, after Japan is abandoned, clear the islands of zombies. I do have to say that I raised my eyebrow at Brooks’ treatment of women in the novel. Their own stories are fine (although pilot Christina Eliopolis has a lot of issues with women), but their introductions make it clear that they are all stunningly gorgeous—if they aren’t, they’re overweight. (There is no middle ground or, heaven forbid, overlap.) For a novel so focused on mimicking the mundanity of human history, that sat poorly with me.
Bottom line: World War Z is a very good piece of horror satire, mashing up The Good War and The Night of the Living Dead in order to critique politics and American culture. It’s dating poorly and I did raise my eyebrow at how Brooks described his female interviewees, but it’s still worth a shot if you’re interested.
I rented this book from my school library.