If you’ve frequented a major bookstore within the past few years, odds are World War Z has caught your eye. I know it caught mine. Hailed as a milestone in zombie mythology, this prominent bestseller by Max Brooks has received quite a bit of attention ever since its publication in 2006.
Now, I generally don’t pay much attention to “bestsellers”, simply because the designation means little to me. The fact that an author is raking in loads of money in book sales doesn’t necessarily mean his work is any good. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code was a bestseller. What does that tell you?
That said, there were two things about World War Z that made it stand out in the crowd, so to speak. For one thing, zombies interest me. A lot. And accounting for differences in the tastes and personalities of my readers, that either means I’m unforgivably weird or pretty cool. Or both.
The second thing that made me take notice was the fact that Dallas Morning News dubbed it “the most topical and literate scare since Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast.” Granted, I know zip about Dallas Morning News; but the comparison (in my opinion) is high praise.
So I bought a copy. And I read it. And you know what? World War Z is a surprisingly good book.
The premise behind it is simple, but executed with skill: a lone journalist sets out to record an oral history of the Zombie War, which came to an end nearly ten years earlier. He does this through a series of interviews with various survivors – from smugglers to politicians to military personnel, and others who witnessed the rise of the undead firsthand… and faced the consequences.
The book opens with a Chinese doctor encountering one of the earliest cases of “infection” – at a time when the Chinese government is attempting to suppress any information about it. But you can only keep something like that under wraps for so long; and when the infection begins spreading to other parts of the world, the result is devastating: a global catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions.
It goes by many names: “The Crisis,” “The Dark Years,” “The Walking Plague,” as well as newer and more “hip” titles such as “World War Z” or “Z War One.” I personally dislike this last moniker as it implies an inevitable “Z War Two.” For me, it will always be “The Zombie War,” and while many may protest the scientific accuracy of the word zombie, they will be hard pressed to discover a more globally accepted term for the creatures that almost caused our extinction. Zombie remains a devastating word, unrivaled in its power to conjure up so many memories or emotions, and it is these memories, and emotions, that are the subject of this book. (p. 1)
I’m sure there are scores of people ready to argue about whether or not zombies could actually exist. I’m not interested in debating that at this point, but I still find the idea intriguing. And if you can just sit back, relax, and accept book’s central conceit, you’re in for one heckuva ride.
As has already been noted, Brooks eschews traditional linear storytelling in favor of loosely connected vignettes. This pseudo-historical account format allows us to see the outbreak, not only from the individual’s perspective, but also from a worldwide point of view. And, it gives the author freedom to mess around with his characters: some appear only briefly, while others pop up more than once.
Think Studs Terkel meets George Romero and you’ve got a pretty good idea of how this book works.
Criticism has been leveled at World War Z for being choppy; and some have complained that it “doesn’t have a main character.” Boo-hoo. The same could be said of most documentaries (which is essentially what this book models itself after). Brooks is not interested in creating a single person for readers to get attached to, and neither is his story meant to flow with the connectedness of a novel. It’s a history, a series of interviews and flashbacks. Of course it’s going to be disjointed.
And stop whining about main characters – they’re overrated.
Brooks’ injects plenty of creativity into his narrative, and his writing is first-rate. One reviewer called it “pulp fiction at its literary finest”. And I would tend to agree. The overall quality (coupled with the interwoven sociopolitical commentary) make World War Z a book that both entertains and gives the reader something to *ahem* chew on.
Of course, it still comes with its fair share of content issues. The biggest of the these is foul language; which, though not wall-to-wall, does appear and is usually strong. Sexual content is virtually non-existent, save for a couple of crude references that pop up here and there. Violence is par the course. But while most authors use zombie fiction as an excuse to radically up the gore-factor, Brooks’ shows a surprising amount of restraint. There still a fair amount of it, and some of it is gruesome. But we aren’t forced to wade through endless descriptions of severed heads, crushed brain-matter, and scattered entrails.
It recently came to my attention that Brad Pitt’s production company bought the film rights to World War Z and have an adaption scheduled to hit theaters in December of this year – a fact which amuses me, considering the apocalyptic brouhaha surrounding the last month of 2012. Will I go see it? Probably. Then again, Hollywood doesn’t exactly have the best track-record when it comes to adaptions of this sort. Whether the movie turns out to be any good is something we’ll simply have to wait to find out.