A literary zombie novel? Is this really possible? Ever since my friend Andy convinced me to read Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter I have tried to keep an open mind to crossover genre fiction. Coming back to Los Angeles from the AWP Writer’s Conference in Chicago, I stopped at one of O’Hare’s Barbara’s Bookstores and discovered that I liked the store’s taste in books. It also didn’t hurt that the kid at the counter was halfway through Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, which he was reading between ringing up customers. I had read more than half of the 20 or so recommended books displayed, and decided to give World War Z, An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks at try.
OK, so maybe literature and zombies may have more than just a casual connection if the movie quote “Are you really trying to seduce me with literature during a Zombie apocalypse?” is any indication. I ended up devouring the whole novel much like a zombie biting into human flesh during my flight back home. Now as a writer, I can never just “enjoy” a book…I had to ask myself why I liked it so much.
After all, even for its solid first person writing throughout, the book had a couple of major flaws. An unnamed narrator is introduced at the beginning of the book, looking to compile the narratives of dozens of different eyewitnesses during the Zombie Wars, and the voices all sound the same as they outline scenes of what took place during a decade-long engagement. This consistent voice made the person narratives seem impersonal. Also, the choice of narrative structure – starting at the end and flashing back to the beginning – took away any real suspense that the zombies were actually going to make humankind extinct.
How then can I recommend a book that is a bit too impersonal and without suspense? It is because there is magic in the short vignettes that describe – in great imagination and detail – the skirmishes with zombies. These narratives cover almost every continent and take place in woods and city, on islands and underwater, below the earth and in outer space. The writer has an acute political understanding and an eye for dark humor, perhaps honed working for Saturday Night Live. He outlines the follies of armies and governments in dealing with a crisis of this magnitude in a way that has you engrossed, engaged and believing that this zombie war actually happened. One of my favorite vignettes is a compound of movie stars that broadcast their location in an encampment that is taken down not by zombies, but by their beloved viewers storming their safe haven because they would not stay out of the limelight.
Throughout the morose tragedy, we recognize the true nature of humanity, and come away feeling that we have learned a little bit about ourselves in the process. This is what literature does. Even with zombies.