World War Z

World War Z: An Oral HIstory of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (2006). Three Rivers Press, 352 pages.

I just love zombies. As a fictional type, they’re hard to beat. So much can be done with them. You can have your outright horror, like Night of the Living Dead. You can up it a notch, add gore and social commentary: Dawn of the Dead. You can use them in a comedy, like Return of the Living Dead. And you can even use them as the focal point of a surprisingly good novel, like this one.

World War Z is a pastiche, a novel written in the form of another type of book: the oral history. This type of book is best known in the works of Studs Terkel. Terkel’s most famous book (and my introduction to his works) is The Good War: An Oral HIstory of World War II. Quite obviously, the novel we’re talking about here is a direct takeoff of that book.

When I first heard of this book, I figured it would be a one-note joke, not really worth reading. But several people I know read it and really liked it. And then I heard from a Studs Terkel fan that this one one of the best fictional emulations of the “oral history” style he’d ever read, regardless of genre. So I figured, what the heck.

World War Z starts out with an introduction from our nameless narrator, written in a dead-on mimic of the Terkel style. In the introduction, written approximately 25 years from now, we learn that this is a collection of remembrances of the Zombie War that broke out “twenty years ago”. Or, in other words, a year or so from “now”. The war, in which most of the population of the earth was converted into zombies by means of an unspecified plague, nearly destroyed humanity. These collected remembrances are about how the world fought back and recovered from the Zombie apocalypse.

As a novel, my only plot complaint is that we never learn what exactly causes “zombieism”. We hear over and over from various surviviors that it’s some sort of virus. Once a person is infected (by being bitten by a zombie), that’s it. Within a few days, you die. A few minutes after death, you “reanimate” as a brainless, dead zombie. Although many people refer to the “virus” that causes the zombie plague, that’s as far as it goes.

In this story, zombies are really, truly walking corpses. They don’t eat, they don’t breathe. They can only be killed by destroying their brains. They crave living flesh – presumably to infect it, since these zombies don’t seem to gain anything by eating people. They also don’t seem to want to eat brains any more than any other part of the body. In this respect, they are much more like the George Romero zombies from Night of the Living Dead, et al, than the brain-craving zombies from Return of the Living Dead, et al.

Wow. I just used the phrases “in this respect” and “et al” in a post about zombies.

What’s surprising about this book is how realistic and moving it is, especially in light of the ridiculous premise. Brooks takes great pains to make this sound like it really, truly is a collection of interviews of survivors from this war. He interviews the doctor in China who witnessed the first outbreak. A soldier who was there in Yonkers, when the military tried in vain to hold back a zombiefied New York. An Australian austronaut, who survived for three years on board the International Space Station as the zombie war played out. The man who was vice president during the war. And so on.

Many of the people in the book are thinly disguised characterizations of real people. There’s a movie director names “Elliot” who is obviously supposed to be Steven Speilberg. The president during the war is clearly Colin Powell, although he is never referred to by name. An unnamed potty comedian on the radio must be Howard Stern. And so on. It’s fun to try to figure out who each figure in the book is supposed to be in real life.

This isn’t they type of novel that grabs you and doesn’t let go; the plot meanders quite a bit. However, that’s to be expected since the book presents itself as a collection of audio interviews, not as a continuos third-person or first-person narrative like a normal novel. It sure does make for a fun read, however, and it’s easy to pick up and put down. I read World War Z over a period of a week, picking it up every now and then to read additional interviews. This would be a great book for a long plane trip, or for situations when you might get interrupted a lot.

World War Z has already been optioned as a movie, and it’ll be interesting to see how Hollywood turns a fictional collection of made-up interviews into a coherent film. I look forward to hundreds of thousands of zombies in Manhattan, zombies strolling across the ocean floor, zombies in the sewers, zombies trapped inside abandoned cars, and zombies unthawing from the snow in the spring. Let’s hope they don’t CGI it to death.

And by the way… if you’re worried that the Zombie Apocalypse might actually occur, well, Brooks has an earlier book called The Zombie Survival Guide that you might want to take a look at.

Peace out, and guard those brains.

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