World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

Our Hyundai Tucson rolled into the parking lot of motel in rural Ontario, kicked-up dust World War Zswirled around the car in the humid June heat.

“I don’t think it’s safe to stay here, mom.”

“What’s wrong this time, Sean?” she said, playing along.

“Well, the entrance is split level so the windows can be broken into almost at ground-level. That also means that if we stayed on the second floor, we wouldn’t be up nearly high enough off the ground. Look mom, this is Canada. People here can’t even carry guns. How on Earth would we defend ourselves? With the car jack in the trunk?”

“Guns are no good,” piped in my brother, “bullets are limited and all. Maybe the car jack would be the best bet.”

“Unless you both want pay for wherever we sleep tonight, I suggest that staying here is just a risk that we’re going to have to take,” she said with a  smile.

My brother and I looked at each other, sighed and slouched out of the car.

In the summer of 2006 my family took a two week road trip from our home in Saint Cloud, Minnesota all the way to Ottawa. This was our second excursion into Canada. During the trip, my brother and I kept occupied by reading Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide; my brother were both big-time zombie buffs with a strong preference for George Romero’s take on the folklore(?).

Admittedly, I was late to pick up his second second book, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. It had always been on my to-read list, for years in fact, until I saw that a movie adaptation had started production. I figured, better late and before the movie than after.

Generally, I avoid horror both in what I watch and what I read. I don’t find shock and gore entertaining in the least. However, I have a soft spot for zombie (and rage virus) movies. I know the classic Romero movies by heart (grrrrr….grawr! ugh! mmmrraaw! umph!), have seen the remakes, the 28 time frames, read the first 17 volumes of The Walking Dead comic series within a week and, as previously stated, read Brooks’ first book back in 2006. It’s the allegory of zombie stories that I love. Zombie-ism works so well as symbolism for issues facing society. Romero’s use of zombies set against a shopping mall in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead clearly symbolized issues with crass consumerism and capitalism while 1985’s Day of the Dead called in to question obedience in the military and, more generally, compliance with authority, alluding the Milgram’s famous experiments in the 1960’s. Indeed, the threat of zombies and their constant threat as a backdrop for an inconsequential plot serves as a warning shot across the bow of society.

Also, I kind of lied earlier. One of the really fascinating aspects of zombie media is the both the intercultural taboo of cannibalism and the primal dread of being the hunted. Our species has carved out a mighty fine place for itself in the food chain and being reminded of our frailty is less jump-out-and-startle-you scary and more existentially terrifying. And that frame-of-mind, my friends, is absolutely thrilling.

I typically don’t read a lot of fiction. In fact, this is my first review of a novel on Friends of Atticus. But World War Z doesn’t read like a novel. It plays with geopolitics, human geography, culture, tradition, religion, militarism, survivalism, compassion and humanity and packages it all into a series of interviews with witnesses, experts, doctors and soldiers, all of whom lived out a nearly decade-long zombie pandemic.

When I first heard that Brad Pitt would be staring in a film adaption of World War Z, I picked up the book (meaning I downloaded it to my iPad) and tore through it in a weekend. Until I saw the movie adaptation last week, I simply couldn’t figure out how they would adapt this book from the touch screen to the silver screen, so to speak. How could they take the aspects that I loved so much, the internationalism, the globalization, the incredibly realistic geopolitics, and develop it for the common denominator that is the American public? While this question was answered in time, I realized that I not only enjoyed this work of fiction but I really cared about it.

In the past, when asked why I tend to eschew fiction, I always responded that truth is stranger than fiction. I still believe that but Brooks is the first author that, for me, blurred the lines of fiction with heavy doses of realism; Brooks makes me forget my suspension of disbelief. He writes with a clarity and economy of adjectives that sounds like real journalism (and not the crap that passes for it in the news media). I contend that the best (and subsequently my favorite) histories are written by journalists and Brooks is a master of that style.

This book totally did it for me. It had everything! Some people are into horse novels, others, romance novels. Imagine that but with zombies! I love history, primary source material, politics, economics and stories of the triumph of the human spirit. Brooks has taken all of those ingredients and has concocted a smart, realistic and well-paced collection of fictitious interviews that make up the body of work that is World War Z and threw in a zombie backdrop because, well, that’s what he does. While many societal issues were dealt with throughout the novel, including racism, terrorism, religious zealotry, human trafficking and American exceptionalism, the zombie backdrop provided the squeeze we as a species needed to come together, cooperate and triumph. Ironically, while initially mired in prejudice and historical, cultural and racial baggage, we as a species ultimately succeed in fighting against a zombie force that doesn’t discriminate in the least.

World War Z was awesome and I want more. I want a lot more.

As for the movie, while I did enjoy it and the entertainment value that it had to offer for the better part of two hours one saturday evening, it was nothing like the book. For further reading and tireless comparison of the book to the movie, please see The Oatmeal’s thoughtful Venn diagram on the subject.

Pages: 352   FOA: 19908

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2 thoughts on “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

    • Sean Stanhill says:

      Indeed. What themes typically seem like pulp fiction, zombies, aliens, are elements of our primitive past, ghosts in the mind and archetypes of the predator that still haunt us to this day.

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