I have always been fascinated by the whole zombie apocalypse trope. The scope for social commentary – are they a metaphor for communists? or mindless consumerism? – is huge. Are zombies still people? Or or we the real monsters? Will science enable us to overcome all the world’s problems? Is it a disease or some sort of punishment? There is so much scope in the “zombie trope” that can be explored. Ultimately, the zombie apocalypse appeals to us because it’s a guiltless way to end this hyper-corporate, profit-for-profit’s sake world that we live in now.
In some ways, it’s surprising that it has taken so long for an actual zombie war book to come out, especially when the first (classical) zombie flick – Night of the Living Dead – was 1968.
But it’s here now and very popular. I was intrigued by it being an “oral history” in the venerable tradition of The Good War by Studs Terkel. To me, this suggested a certain artistry and depth to this book, beyond a simple zombie flick in print. The work of a real connoisseur.
I was mostly wrong.
The problem is that Max Brooks took the path of Tom Clancy instead of the way of say, Stephen Ambrose. This book recounts in verbal anecdotes the history of humanity’s war against the zombies. Fine. But really this method is utilised mostly to obscure the myriad of weaknesses in Brooks’ writing style. It allows him to distract you with the novelty of the a given anecdote (say, fighting zombies underwater) before you get used to it and realise that the idea of fighting zombies underwater stupid and lame. After two or more pages, the stilted, cliched writing becomes too much to bear, Mercifully, Brooks then non sequiturs to the nest story which holds out the promise of zombie excellence.
This leads me to a larger gripe with World War Z: there is no big picture, no message, no real story arc and no personality. It’s fan fiction wearing the garb of high science-fiction. It has not occurred to Max Brooks that “zombies” might be a metaphor for – (purely for example) decaying 21st century, global pollution, or technology destroying fragile human relationships – he’s rudderless. Zombies is simply his way of providing an easy-to-dislike bad guy for his Clancy-esque adventures. Brooks had this chance to gloriously dramatise the entire zombie universe; recreate it as his own and he totally failed. He failed to see much less realise the potential of his book.
His zombie world is very much a world of cliche and clumsy national stereotypes. The Scots really like bagpipes; Americans like individualism, classic rock and the stock market. In a book which implies that humanity unites to face the zombie threat, Brooks is obsessed with nationalism. The “extreme” cases of nationalism are singled out: apartheid South Africa, North Korea, Israel and Cuba are highlights in a world full of only America with references to Russia, China, Canada, France, and Germany. Each nation is trapped in it’s own cliche-ness. Here’s this epic war where everything changes and at the end Brooks has nothing to offer except a vague, pathetic reference to the Dow Jones index climbing back a few points every day.
All that just to restore Wall Street? Great