World War Z by Max Brooks
It seems like everyone is reading World War Z lately, so I thought I’d give it a go to see what the fuss is about. I’m not particularly interested in zombies, never really understanding the appeal of films which play the zombie threat straight (I like comedies, Shawn of the Dead etc.), and I generally see zombies as existing simply to be fodder for extreme violence in film and videogames which would be unpalatable if committed against sentient humans. I’m not ashamed to admit that Max Brooks has proven me wrong on zombies, delivering what is probably my favourite apocalyptic novel since Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.
Easily my favourite thing about World War Z is its international focus. Yes, there’s probably more focus upon America than anywhere else, but Max Brooks is American and understands America better than he does the rest of the world. The real triumph of this novel is the way in which he weaves the cultures of the nations of the world into their response to a massive zombie epidemic. The response in America would be very different to the response in China, and Brooks captures this very well. I was somewhat perturbed by a clear pro-Israel bias which manifests in the novel, but it’s never so egregious as to detract too much from the story. From the Paris underground, to the mountains of Japan, even to the International Space Station, we see the zombie crisis from almost every conceivable angle, and this is so incredibly refreshing in the zombie genre. This isn’t just a criticism of the Americans, British films such as 28 Days Later don’t really offer much of an international angle either, so it’s great to read a novel taking this kind of approach.
World War Z has a singularly interesting structure; the novel contains a series of interviews with a broad range of survivors of the devastating titular war in which a zombie epidemic swept the world. The interviewer is Max Brooks himself, but he does a good job of keeping his personality out of the novel, keeping the focus upon the stories of the survivors. The novel follows the entire trajectory of the conflict, from the first discovery of an infection in ‘Patient Zero’, through to the ‘Great Panic’ that followed, and finally into the beginnings of an organised resistance to the encroaching zombie hoards.
It might be expected that the very nature of this novel would reduce narrative tension, but Brooks manages to show exceptional talent as a horror writer. We know humanity must survive the zombie war; how else would the book exist? We also know that are interviewees will survive to give the interview, so the tension comes from elsewhere. Rather than wondering whether our hero will survive, we wonder whether the humanity that emerges from World War Z is one that deserves to live. Many of the snippets we are given in the interviews feel like episodes in lives which could have carried a full novel by themselves, creating a work simply packed with fascinating detail and compelling stories.
Considering that this is Brook’s first real novel (his earlier work, The Zombie Survival Guide, doesn’t construct a narrative in the same sense), it’s remarkable accomplished. There’s a little bit of falling into cliché in the way some of the characters communicate, but it’s never bad enough to break the wonderful immersion this novel can create. There are so many little details that make this novel work so well; I loved that the American military listen to ‘The Trooper’ by Iron Maiden to psych themselves up before a big battle, reactions from figures such as Nelson Mandela and the Queen and the tale of the army of dachshunds trained to alert humans to nearby zombies. Whilst the sweeping narrative of this novel is definitely strong, it’ll be these little details that I’ll still remember a year from now, and the novel is packed with them.
The protagonist of World War Z isn’t really Max Brooks, the interviewer, but the planet Earth itself. The characters are the nations; Russia is paranoid, Japan insecure, China riven by internal conflict. This is something that the upcoming Brad Pitt starring film adaption looks to be thoroughly misunderstanding. That said, some really interesting human characters emerge, and Brooks generally leaves you wanting more. I was absolutely fascinated by the maverick former Vice President known as ‘The Wacko’, and was desperate to learn more about him, but Brooks does the right thing and preserves the mystery. Brooks presents a really interesting view of America; the man is a self confessed patriot, and this novel is clearly written by a man very proud of his country, but he also contains some biting criticism of American culture, particularly isolationism. This is a novel in which America is confronted with the idea that it isn’t special, it’s just another nation amongst a plethora, with the zombies acting as a leveller to strip away nationalist pretensions. It’s hard not to view the bungling response of the US government to the zombie crisis as a reference to President Bush’s utter failure of leadership following Hurricane Katrina. However, Brooks presents the Americans as having a tenacity of spirit which allows them to overcome. If the nations of the world are the protagonists of World War Z, the United States is the most complex and riven by contradictions, yet also the most interesting.
World War Z is a really fun novel, one which deserves the hype it has received. There’s definitely room for more stories told around the Zombie War, and I hope that Brooks returns to the setting one day. If you’re into zombies, this novel is a no brainer. Even if you’re not, like me, this is a really great read, and one I recommend to anyone with a fondness for genre fiction.