Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Living Dead: Two Novels

The zombie craze has been burning steadily for the better part of a decade, and for the most part I've let it pass me by.  I enjoy them in small doses--the occasional Resident Evil film, Jonathan Coulton's "Re: Your Brains," John Langan's short story "How the Day Runs Down"--but I'm not committed to the notion, as fandom in general often seems to be, that zombies make everything better and are inherently fun and interesting.  I seem to have reached a point in my reading life where killing off all but a minuscule portion of humanity in order to give one's heroes a planet-sized playground to run around in seems not only callous but unimaginative (in much the same way the new Star Trek writers opting to suck an entire planet and most of its inhabitants into a black hole in order to give one of their characters angst was quite literally overkill), and as a joke zombies strike me as a one-note gag (see, for example, the general consensus on Pride and Prejudice with Zombies--that the book plays itself out in its title).  Nevertheless, the hoopla around them has gotten so loud that I felt compelled to dip my toes in, and ended up selecting two books which addressed these very concerns, one successfully, the other not so much.

Max Brooks's World War Z is one of the most visible and most highly praised entries in the new zombie canon, and with a great deal of justification.  Subtitled "An Oral History of the Zombie War," Brooks's novel, which consists of interviews with participants and survivors of a global, decade-long struggle against zombies, seems determined to defuse most of the clichés of the zombie story.  Its canonical form, of the world overrun by the zombie hordes with only a few brave survivors making a stand and restarting civilization from zero, is treated with some derision.  As described by a soldier who liberated some of these isolated strongholds at the end of the zombie war, such people were not simply deluded or even dangerous, but tangents--rather insignificant ones--to the actual story.
the body armor was for protection against some of the regular people we found.  I'm not talking organized rebels, just the odd LAMoE, Last Man on Earth.  There was always one or two in every town, some dude, or chick, who managed to survive.  I read somewhere that the United States had the highest number of them in the world, something about our individualistic nature or something.  ... The ones we called LAMoEs, those were the ones who were a little too used to being king.  King of what, I don't know, Gs and quislings and crazy F-critters, but I guess in their mind they were living the good life, and here we were to take it all away.
Underlying World War Z is the recognition that the world is huge, complicated, and almost infinitely varied, and that no catastrophe can simply end the human experience, in all its many forms, in one fell swoop (in that sense, it reminded me of Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl).  More importantly, this is a novel that recognizes that an event of the scope and nature it describes can never be the story of an individual or even a group, but that individuals and groups can only cast a light on the huge processes that shaped and were shaped by this event.  In a way, World War Z seeks to demystify the zombie story, to take it away from the realm of horror and make it SFnal and thus rational.  As Brooks describes it, the zombie apocalypse is a hellish combination of global plague--it emerges in China, which, SARS-like, tries to suppress evidence of it, and soon the infected are surging across national borders and carrying the disease all over the globe--environmental catastrophe--initial evidence of the dangers zombies pose is ignored and politicized, and much of the damage they cause is indirect, as they trample the planet's ecosystem by devouring and destroying much of the plant and animal life in their path--and world war--the progress of the struggle against zombies is rather obviously modeled on World War II, sometimes too closely, in fact, as in the emergence of a second Cold War after the zombies are defeated. 

World War Z, which is divided into chapters charting the buildup to the zombie apocalypse, the panicked initial reaction to it, and eventual regrouping and retaking of the planet, is actually at its weakest when it describes the war proper.  The chapter near the end of the novel, which describes the way in which an initially chastened and demoralized army, which had previously thrown, with very little effect, every high-tech piece of weaponry against an enemy that could only be killed by a direct shot or blow to the head, starts out stirring but quickly becomes mired in technical detail as it shifts between different veterans of different global campaigns to describe the challenges each faced and the techniques each came up with to overcome them.  Earlier in the novel, in a chapter titled "The Great Panic," Brooks veers too far into real-world political allegory.  The world of World War Z is quite obviously modeled on our own, with the US having recently emerged from a deeply unpopular overseas war and a right-wing, Bush-like president in office (who is later replaced by an obvious Obama analogue).  The bungled response of this administration, first to the warnings issued by various intelligence agencies as to the danger posed by zombies, and then to the actual infestation, is portrayed with such vitriol that it almost seems like a vicious parody ("Can you imagine the panic that would have happened," the former White House chief of staff exclaims, in response to being asked why the government stood behind a placebo zombie vaccine, "the protest, the riots, the billions in damage to private property?"), which sits very poorly with the more earnest tone of the rest of the novel.

Where World War Z shines is in its descriptions of the non-military response to the zombie crisis--the intelligence officers who first recognize the problem and write urgent reports calling for swift response; the evacuation plans that collect as many people as possible behind mountainous natural defenses (while leaving vast portions of the population to fend for themselves); the government agencies set up in order to feed, clothe, house, and mostly organize the evacuees, and whose major challenge is finding work for office workers and service providers whose job skills are now useless; the official and unofficial civilian organizations that rise up in response to the crisis.  This is a novel that seems to have been written for people like me, who watch shows like Battlestar Galactica and are genuinely annoyed and disappointed that the writers seem to feel that questions like 'where are the food and water coming from' or 'how have the civilians organized themselves' are boring issues to be ignored or gotten out of the way as quickly as possible.  It's a novel that recognizes that human life is fractally fascinating--no matter how insignificant or seemingly mundane a problem is, the ways that people deal with it will always be interesting. 

And it's a novel that doesn't treat a global catastrophe as if it stops with, or mainly affects, the United States.  Though the middle portions of World War Z, which describe how humanity reshapes itself after the evacuation, concentrate mainly on the continental US, the story moves all over the world, and emphasizes that way that different geography and history affect the response to the zombie crisis.  I say this, however, more to commend Brooks's intentions than his execution.  The portion of the novel that takes place in Israel is riddled with so many of the silliest and most common clichés about my country--the yiddish-inflected voice of the narrator and his job as a Mossad agent, the namechecking of Operation Entebbe, and in general the extremely shallow understanding of Israeli culture (particularly as something distinct from Jewish culture) and national character--that I can only assume that most of the other non-US-set segments are similarly afflicted, and though Israel is described positively (a bit too positively, in fact--in Brooks's imaginary future, the threat of a zombie incursion is enough to put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis) I imagine that Japanese, Russian, or Chinese readers might come away from the novel--which introduces Japan through a character who blames an education that taught him to memorize information but not process it for his complete disassociation from reality, from which he only broke out after his parents had been killed by zombies; in which China, refusing to acknowledge that it is outmatched by the zombies, sends wave upon wave of its citizens to be killed by them; and in which Russia sinks back into totalitarianism, this time of a religious flavor, after the war--feeling quite offended. 

In general, World War Z pays for the breadth of its vision with a lack of depth.  Brooks isn't quite the writer who can craft three-dimensional, affecting people out of the brief portraits he sketches, so most of the novel's affect comes from the situations he describes.  Sometimes these are quite successful--the crew of the International Space Station, who spend the war in orbit maintaining the satellites the army uses to track the zombies' movements, the Hollywood director who finds new purpose making propaganda films, the suburban mother who had dismissed the zombie threat as something unreal or at least far away, who suddenly finds it on her doorstep--though at other times the narratives are jokey or perfunctory.  In its best moments, however, World War Z delivers a kind of horror that is so much more effective, because so much more real, than the kind represented by zombies--the horror that the life we've gotten used will be taken away, that the entire world order will change, not end but change, under our noses, forcing us to scramble in order to survive.  It's terrifying because our grandparents and in some cases our parents did live through that sort of upheaval, and it's one that we might live through again.

S.G. Browne's Breathers takes an opposite, but no less idiosyncratic, approach to the zombie story.  Subtitled "A Zombie's Lament," it is narrated by Andy Warner, a recently deceased and reanimated zombie.  No one knows why, but some of those who die in Andy's world come back to life, slowly decomposing but still in full possession of the memories and personality they had before they died.  The undead are feared and reviled.  Those whose families will take them in have to obey curfew and are subject to abuse both verbal and physical with no recourse to the law.  Those who are unclaimed (from the SPCA, where wandering zombies are delivered by the police) are handed over for organ harvesting, to be used as crash test dummies, or as teaching cadavers for medical students.  Andy is relatively lucky in that his parents have allowed them to live in their home, but they are fearful and even openly hostile, and the relatives now caring for his daughter won't let him contact her.  The only friends he has are the equally sad and lonely members of his Undead Anonymous group.  Andy has pretty much resigned himself to an afterlife of misery when he meets Ray, a zombie who hooks him on human flesh--as it turns out, the means of reversing the undead's decay--and more importantly, re-instills in him a sense of purpose and self-worth.  With his fellow group members, Andy starts a campaign for undead rights, even as he experiments with ever more adventurous recipes for his parents' flesh.

Breathes is thus the story of a character who starts out recognizably human and then, after experiencing personal loss and systematic abuse, talks himself into the starting position of the traditional zombie story--a hulking, shuffling horde bent on devouring the living.  It sounds like an interesting concept, but the execution leaves much to be desired.  Pitched as a comedy, Breathers is rather strong evidence in favor of the belief I expressed at the beginning of this post, that the zombie as a joke wears thin much too fast.  The concept of a zombie who is still rational, and can calmly and rationally explain his desire for human flesh, is funny at "Re: Your Brains" length, but even in a slim novel like Breathers it grows old rather quickly.  Or maybe the problem is specific to Browne, who never extends his reach beyond the rather obvious gag that the rapidly decomposing, reanimated corpse with a taste for human flesh narrating this novel has such mundane concerns as how to make a pass at a cute member of his support group, or which wine goes best with his latest meal of human, or even laundry. 
Ted's arms and legs thrash to no avail.  I want to bite into him, to feel his flesh in my mouth--a confection, sweet and decadent, the food of the gods.  The temptation is so strong I can almost feel the invincibility seeping into my blood vessels and flowing down my throat, but I don't want to make a mess.  A pool of blood and stray bits of human flesh on the floor tends to shout "zombie attack."  Besides, I just got my shirt back from the dry cleaners.
That's a pretty obvious kind of joke the first time you encounter it, but Breathers features them on every page.  It's not a very funny novel to begin with and by its end it is decidedly tedious.  Some humor might have been drawn from Browne's portrait of humanity's reactions to zombies, or from the hypocrisy of Andy's campaign for human rights even as he goes on a clandestine killing spree, and the novel does gesture in both of these directions, but rather thinly.  Our glimpses of humanity are concentrated mostly on Andy's immediate environs, which is to say his parents, who are deliberately made horrible so that we won't feel too bad when Andy eats them, and it's only towards the end of the novel that Browne introduces the conflict between Andy's public face and private activities, and he races through these final chapters as though not quite capable of performing the feat Brooks does in World War Z, and imagining a believable real-world reaction to zombies.  Whether the problem is in the basic concept or in the fact that it was Browne who executed it, Breathers is a disappointing and predictable read.

That, then, was the mixed result of my foray into zombie fiction.  I'm still not sure I understand just why this particular monster has so captured fandom's imagination.  Brooks only makes an interesting story out of zombies by stripping away most of what's familiar about them and veering far off the canonical form of the zombie story, and Browne, by sticking to his one-joke guns, creates something utterly boring.  Nevertheless, the phenomenon is here to stay, in books and on screen (both novels have been optioned for adaptation into film, though I can't quite imagine how one could make a successful movie out of a novel as center-less as World War Z, and suspect that a strong script might easily elevate Breathers above its lackluster source material).  Maybe in another ten years' time, I'll dip my toes in again.

8 comments:

Matt Hilliard said...

Well, zombies are a fad, and as such some of the enthusiasm will pass. But zombies still aren't going anyway. I assume you don't play video games since you don't mention them here but they are positively infested with zombies and have been for a long time.

My take on all this is that zombies are a result of moral challenges to traditional stories. Action heroes in movies and video games generally need a lot of faceless enemies to chop through. Not too long ago, it was perfectly acceptable to have these simply be some other nationality or ethnic group: a hero would kill, say, Russians by the truckload and no one batted an eye.

While there are still some examples of that, it's fortunately becoming less and less acceptable, so people are casting about for antagonists whose slaughter is morally neutral. Nazis meet this criteria, and right now there are mountains of World War II video games as a result. In other games and children's cartoons, the bad guys employ a thoroughly implausible number of robots. But for the present day, where is theoretically plausible adult action to turn?

Obviously zombies fit the bill. Even better, they usually come with a post-apocalyptic setting that as an added bonus involves a lot of people who have cast aside civilization in favor of barbarism and who thus are also subject to guiltless killing (and serve as more intelligent foils to the hero).

The good news is that the need for zombie-like enemies isn't very strong in written fiction, where action is less important and there's much more bandwidth to explore moral issues. Even fantasy seems to finally be moving away from Tolkiens' orcs, which serve the same purpose.

KdS said...

The President in "World War Z" is quite clearly Colin Powell, and the "whacko" Vice-President Howard Dean.

From the UK perspective, I was not convinced by the references to the mystic power of royalty, and was absolutely outraged by the slighting reference to Clement Atlee and the explanation of Winston Churchill's electoral defeat after WWII. (Most historians agree that it was nothing to do with war-weariness, but a rejection of Churchill's conservative ideology by a mass population who had just fought a war and wanted real improvements of their own country.)

cofax7 said...

What I liked about WWZ was the decentered-ness of it, as you said. That the war was won, inasmuch as it was won, by institutions rather than heroic individuals holding off the masses by power of their manly wills. I liked the screwups and political failures and the slow rebuild and the attention to logistics and worldbuilding.

The last I heard about the proposed movie, J. Michael Straczinsky was rumored to be the scriptwriter, which makes me cringe. And like you, I have no idea how to make that novel into a movie unless you take away everything that makes it an interesting novel--they would have to have a Hero, and a Last Stand, and all that, and it just doesn't work for WWZ.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Matt:

I suspect you're right about the popularity of zombies. In theory at least I'm intrigued by the notion of porting over some of the cornerstone tropes and character types of comic books and video games into written fiction - not just zombies but superheroes and others - but I've yet to come across an example that truly marries the two modes successfully. World War Z comes closest, but it does so by scooping out some of the fundamental characteristics of both zombie stories and the modern novel.

KdS:

The President in "World War Z" is quite clearly Colin Powell, and the "whacko" Vice-President Howard Dean.

Could be. I took the reference to this family in Nigeria as a nod towards Obama's Kenyan and Indonesian family ties. Not to mention that Powell is a Republican and, at the time of the novel's writing, was still backing up the Iraq war. That said, the novel was published in 2006 so it's possible that Obama was not yet on Brooks's radar.

Cofax:

Last I'd heard, Straczinsky was off the project, which on the whole is probably a good thing. He's certainly got experience in breaking the Hollywood mold, but even in his formal experimentation he always hews very closely to the heroic individual mode that World War Z, as you say, so refreshingly avoids. Which is not to say that I think anyone else could make a successful movie out of this novel, and that's not even a criticism of Hollywood. By the end of the book my patience was flagging - once the danger of the zombies is mostly contained the interview format starts to seem nitpicky. That's not a major concern in a written work, where the reader controls their reading speed, but I can easily imagine a straight adaptation of the book, where the viewer is a passive recipient of information on the moviemakers' schedule, being a little boring.

KdS said...

I believe that there was a government of national unity situation where the President and Vice-President were of different parties. The Vice-President is certainly Dean as Brooks alludes explicitly to the press criticisms of his overexcited speech after losing the Iowa primary that ended his hopes of becoming the Democratic candidate in 2004.

KdS said...

In fact the Dean character talks about another person from his party who would have made a better Vice-President if the country had been ready to have two black men as President and VP, and I think that was a reference to Obama.

communicator said...

KdS I was enraged by that comment about Attlee too! I liked most of the rest though. I liked the description of a British propaganda film with 'How soon is now' as the soundtrack. That's how they should make the film, too. A collage of items.

Zanke said...

I think you could have picked better books than those. Breathers doesn't follow the standard rules, it's an author trying out something new. World War Z is a decent book, but there are others that are better. Try Day by Day Armageddon by J. L. Bourne and Plague of the Dead by ZA Recht.

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