Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Off the Shelf: World War Z (an oral history of the zombie war)

Disclaimer: I don't do horror/monster stuff well. Interview with the Vampire creeped me out so bad, I couldn't sleep. I refuse to watch horror movies anymore because they don't sit well with my overactive imagination.

Max Brooks' World War Z is not a horror book. It uses a motif from horror (the undead rising up to plague the living) as a plot device to tell the story of an international struggle against a highly contagious plague. Neither is it an action book; even though it tells the story of a war, it is written as "oral history" -- meaning that it is written in the voices of survivors of this fictional conflict. The survivors look back with the eye of "how did this happen", "what did we do well", "how did we triumph", and most importantly "how do we move on". Because Brooks choose this narrative style, his book reads more like a highly engaging PBS documentary script than it does a plotline for Dawn of the Living Dead.

It would be easy to dismiss the book without ever reading it: "Zombies -- oh, that's pulp fiction; don't waste my time." or better yet "I only read serious fiction". Don't make this mistake. Brooks has written what I believe to be one of the best pieces of social commentary that I've read in a long time. At the same time he finds a way to appeal to the inner William Wallace within us -- we can overcome great adversity and at the same time affirm that which essentially makes us human. This book demonstrates a familiarity with international politics, military strategy, sound economic practice (he actually deals with the problem of how does a country reconstruct itself after almost being overrun by zombies), tough ethical questions, materialism and celebrity culture, and the psychological toll of war.

What's even more engaging is that each character has his/her own voice. Brooks makes these characters breathe. As they tell their stories, they feel fleshed out and real. I cared for these characters; I celebrated their triumphs and ached for their struggles. I'm not alone in thinking this is a far more serious book than the title lets on. Read this excerpt from Jeremy Taylor's review:
World War Z is interesting and compelling and horrifying and heartwarming all at once. I would characterize it as being extremely well written, insofar as each of the three-to-four-page first-person accounts are told with a unique voice. Very often, items in a single-author short-story collection tend to run together and become almost indistinguishable from each other because all the stories, being written by the same author, have the same general voice. They all feel sort of the same, even though the subjects are different. That’s not the case with this book. Brooks was able to infuse different motivations, emotions, disappointments, and struggles into each different narrator with the end result being a real sense of collaboration rather than simple narration.Brooks’s sense of how the world would respond to an existence-threatening crisis is fascinating as well. Predictably, and probably accurately, the U.S. responds with collaborative military force. China responds by shutting down the flow of all incoming and outgoing information. Russia responds by returning to its Orthodox religious roots. Britain and Israel respond pragmatically, looking after their own citizens at the expense of all others. Discussions of political and military strategies, detailed examinations of the strengths and weaknesses of various weapons systems, and realistic military-sounding jargon and nicknames for the undead enemy add realism and a sense that events really could play out this way were the dead to rise.
Faithful Eagle and Child readers may remember last summer's series on the Fourth Turning. In it, Strauss and Howe posited that every 80-100 years or so a society wide crisis grips the culture and shakes it from top to bottom. This crisis creates the basis of a new societal arrangement and it brings into sharp light the failings of the previous era. That's exactly what Brooks does for us in this book -- he imagines the crisis and the kind of moral strength it will take to survive the crisis.

Be forewarned -- there's violence, there's profanity, there are bad people who do bad things (Brooks is honest about sin and its consequences). Yet overall, I found it actually inspiring. I believe it is a fine example of the kind of book that teaches - it makes one want to be a better person (much as Michael Flaherty suggests in this month's Imprimis article).

Soli Deo Gloria