Those of you who have read this blog for a bit are probably a touch shocked that there’s such a contemporary novel here. I believe it is – and I’m a bit shocked by this myself – among the maybe half dozen twenty-first century novels I have ever read. As squeamish as I am I absolutely love “zombie” culture, I just can’t watch any zombie movies or play zombie video games because of my over-active imagination. I had nightmares every night I watched an episode of “The Walking Dead” and for days after I saw “28 Days Later.” Still, I find the genre fascinating, so as I’m trying to brainstorm ideas for a course – Dystopia and the Apocalypse in Literature – I wanted a thoroughly contemporary example. Enter World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (2007). I borrowed a copy from my bffff and plowed through it in precisely three readings over three days. Last night I was up until midnight finishing off the last hundred pages; it’s not easy to put it down. As much as I tend to value to classics over contemporary fiction, “not easy to put it down” is not something that can be said for (m)any of the “classics” I study, with rare exception. It was a unique experience!
World War Z has a frame narrative that describes it as a collection of recorded interviews, leftover scraps from post-war accounts that were combined into a report by the UN ten years after the end of the zombie wars. The interviewer and writer of the brief introduction (no epilogue, which I feel is a glaring omission) is ostensibly this person, and the “interviews” are transcriptions. The most obvious stylistic flaw in the novel is that, even though the interviews are set up as being transcriptions, the narrative voice never changes. These individual “accounts,” which number at least thirty, all have the same voice and are clearly written by the same person. Being able to write in half a dozen unique narrative voices is a feat – Richardson took three times as many pages to get it done in Clarissa – but thirty or more would take a genius to execute well. While I think Brooks is a good writer, this kind of undertaking was a gross overestimation of his range. Giving people more/less profanity, having one “child voice” in the form of a young lady frozen at age 4 when the outbreak started, and having no difference in slang or cadence from people all over the entire globe just adds up. The narratives range from 5 pages to 20 with a few people getting a second run in the final chapter, but after the tenth “interview” you can tell that this is just one voice speaking. Also – and it’s fine that the “interviews” are predominantly with experts – but they are all experts, as in they almost felt too knowledgeable and it started losing some of the edge.
Stylistic gripes aside I thought it was paced quite well. The accounts take you through the history chronologically, starting with “patient zero” and ending when the land/sea wars against the dead hit their stride. Told ten years after the outbreak started it’s definitely an optimistic novel; by the end the US economy seems to be recovering and democracy has survived, while Russia has “gone back,” Cuba is now democratic. Speaking of Cuba, a real issue when writing fiction is grounding it in time. As an author you need to decided to do it or not. 1984 will always have a silly title to people reading it after, oh say, 1980, because the threat isn’t imminent anymore. “Oh, haha, 1984, amirite? I’m so glad that never happened!” Why Brooks decided, with Castro as old as he was in 2007, to write him into the novel while not naming anyone else is beyond me. It’s as though he wanted to try and keep in in its own separate timeline, but just couldn’t resist writing in Castro. He had to know that this novel would become implausibly out of date the moment Castro died because the moment he died to novel would get anchored to a time period. Considering the timeline of the novel, the inclusion of Castro into the plot means that the outbreak had to start some time in 2006-2008. Maybe this wasn’t done intentionally, but Castro has died now, and his democratization of Cuba happens in the novel, I believe (note that I did not look it up so feel free to contradict me) 5-7 years into the zombie invasion. I think that’s a real negative though and, if Brooks ever revises the novel for a new edition, I would suggest that he write out Castro and make it a little more vague.
There are some other issues, too. Not typos necessarily, though there are a few, but a mythology gap (or so it seems). The zombies eat everything, everything, as long as it’s “alive” in a conventional sense (plants seem to be spared, though the sky is darkened, at least for a while, so I’m not sure how/what crops make it) and run in gigantic packs, even “mega swarms.” That would imply, over the seven to ten years zombie numbers grew unchecked, that they would have nearly decimated the world’s animal population. The novel even directly states that every single whale species has gone extinct. If the environment has been compromised to that degree, that would be far more dangerous and potentially devastating to the global population than the zombie outbreak itself. Let’s forget that even, there’s a bigger one. In the canine chapter, about dog war heroes (which was great), the novel clearly states that zombie flesh is toxic, so the dogs can’t even bite them without dying. Additionally, throughout the novel, if any infected zombie flood/flesh, any bio material at all, gets into the human body, that human becomes infected. Finally, there is no vaccine and they are just starting to “tag” zombies for study at the end of the novel. The ocean is the last holdout of these great swarms, able to live under water and there are, ten years in, special units that are tasked with eliminating these great underwater hoards. Initially that means basically shooting the things underwater and there’s more than one account in the “underwater” section about the water basically becoming a zombie-part stew every time there’s a confrontation. Wouldn’t that imply that the entire ocean is contaminated? Wouldn’t that mean that the planet’s entire water source is somewhere between toxic to all animals and infecting all humans? There’s no vaccine, no cure, and ingestion of any material will “turn” someone … so what’s going on with the water supply? This is a huge mythology gap, saying that zombie flesh is toxic to animals (which appear to be immune to the virus itself) plus killing zombies underwater, would equal a dead ocean. Even if the virus somehow doesn’t make it onto land in this scenario, the end of ocean life means the end of life, period. I know I sound like a giant nerd right now, but this seems like a pretty big flaw, and if a gap is large enough to take you out of the narrative I think that’s a problem. “There’s so much we still don’t understand,” is present, obviously, but the “water problem” feels like it should have been at least addressed.
As I re-read this I realize this whole review is basically just complaints. I’m probably being unduly harsh, but if I thought WWZ was lousy or poorly written I wouldn’t bother analyzing this novel at all. Clearly, from my marathon reading sessions, it was a really interesting read. I’ve heard criticism regarding the lack of tension (though there are tense moments) and pacing from people who prefer a more heart-stopping experience, but I liked the “spoiler alert” that humanity survived long enough to weather the outbreak. I would also read the sequel, which I feel must be in the works, about some of the individual mini societies that sprung up: small camps of survivors that held up for years until the so-called cavalry arrived. There are allusions to such places, I think Five Colleges is what one is called, and others in castles, those accounts would be fascinating too. Not to mention North Korea, which is left completely open ended, or the fact that the zombie outbreak is caused by a virus, which means there are going to be mutations. That’s the real saving grace of this book, when you read it you are absolutely sure that Brooks has this all in his head, this gigantic world, so you get sucked into it. Also, something nearly unrelated, last night after finishing the book I slept for all of five hours and woke up with a “war ballad” from the Z War in my head. Not a real one mind you, the book had just gotten into my head and lived there, so kudos to Brooks for that. My song is catchy too, a folk song about risking your neck to go out and get a paper and it being six weeks old; Brooks, if you want the deets, drop me a line.