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World War Z by Max Brooks

I am, I know, a few years behind most people in reading this novel by Max Brooks, but I picked it up on the recommendation of a friend, Mike. He commented on how he was fascinated by how a disaster — a violent, worldwide epidemic of zombie virus — transformed individuals: how a nobody could become a leader, or a leader (or group of leaders) could persist in folly and be taken down by it. I think that’s the gist of what he said.

Well, for me, that was one of a few fascinating things about this book. Another was its use of the interview format. Somewhere in one of the blurbs, Brooks is compared to Studs Terkel, and I find that somewhat apt, not so much in any overlap of skills — Terkel was, of course, a genius at getting real people to tell their stories, where Brooks is constructing fantastical stories and fantastical people to tell them — but in the fact that Brooks has adapted the Terkel-styled book of interviews to the novelistic form. This might not be new, but it is a particularly effective treatment of the style, and one that seems particularly designed to appeal to an audience that is more and more accustomed to reading online. Hopefully it’s not the only solution to the problem of writing narratives for such an audience — I’d hate to see a more general move in that direction among novelists — but it is, nonetheless, a fascinating example of using the forms popular in (and comfortable from) the mainstream media to construct a large narrative. It fits with the kind of reading we’re doing these days very well.

By that, I mean that as readers, we’re engaging with more, shorter chunks of text; we’re having to stitch together that text (something Brooks makes easier since he puts effort into building the meta-narrative up from one interview to the next, sometimes directly, but there’s still a mild challenge to the reader to connect the dots). The picture that emerges is, of course, a composite, and what we have is not one narrative, but rather a metanarrative viewed through a prism of different points of view.

The net effect is that this is the kind of book one can read, put down, pick back up again, and continue on. One rarely feels difficulty trying to “get back into” the book, to switch modes mentally to slip back into the narrative stream, or anything like that. Yet the little stories we read along the way are vivid and convincing enough to get one thinking: what would I do in that situation? How would I feel if that happened to me? It is, in effect, like Studs Terkel’s work in that way: you feel empathy for most of the cast of characters, even when you distrust or dislike one or two.

And it really is one or two: while the cast of characters is relatively diverse, and feel diverse — their voices are differentiated enough for that — most of the characters were both sympathetic, and capable of holding my attention. Some of them, like the guys who explained the underwater and subterranean warfare in Paris. were fascinating. The female pilot who ended up stranded in zombie territory, too, told a fascinating story, just clinging to the edge of trustworthiness… sort of.

Another thing I really liked about it was that it really was more global in scope. Sadly, there wasn’t much in the way of Africa or Latin America — mostly, “global” here means Western Europe, Russia, Northeast Asia, a little of Australia I think. South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, most of Africa beyond South Africa, and anywhere south of the US or, more generously, Mexico, appears only in vague references or brief glimpses. This seems odd: after all, South Africa would be affected by developments in Zimbabwe, in Tanzania, in Malawi, and so on. But then again, it’s a 340 page novel, and the focus is perhaps slightly warranted by the climatological aspect of zombiedom in the novel — the freeze-and-thaw of the zombies making the problem more persistent in the North. Perhaps, also, in places like Indonesia, or Tanzania, or India, or Brazil, the zombie plague is farther from being wiped out? (Though Iceland is one of the worst-infected places in the world of the novel, it’s not clear that hotter countries have been purged of their outbreak.)

There are a few things that are very interesting when you consider that aspect of the novel — the choice of locales to put onto the page. One is that Brooks did do his research, at least a little. I can’t speak for the scenes set in Japan, but the one set on the DMZ did capture my imagination. The complete disappearance of the North Korean population — underground? in suicide? — is baffling (in a good way); I was grateful that the zombie outbreak there didn’t play out as a kind of metaphor for North-South conflict, with zombies stumbling through the DMZ to attack Seoul. The book does resist that sort of political reading, indeed, resists the kinds of national boundaries we all take for granted — though only in a limited way. One imagines that in such a disaster, the fluidity of national boundaries would become greater than it does in Brooks’ novel, that national identity might be superceded by other forms of self-identification, that national boundaries would indeed reconfigure around the most devastated areas with some places becoming no-man’s-land wastelands until the human population grew back enough to need to reclaim those areas.

If we wish, there are a number of ways to read the zombie plague metaphorically: as a metaphor for the kind of neoliberal economic globalization that is in full swing now; in terms of the crisis of meaning that grips all societies as they modernize and fit themselves into that world system; as a metaphor for terrorism and the dominant social and institutional anxieties of our age.

For me, though, the metaphorical reading that stands out most — interms of this, and of all kinds of zombie narratives in the developed world — is that they represent the experience of individuals in societies where communities have been replaced by what the educational critic John Taylor Gatto calls vampiric “networks.” These, Gatto explains, are community-like institutions, such as schools, corporations, teams, government agencies, hospitals, and armies, that masquerade as being capable of fulfilling out social and psychological needs, but which actually mediate human interaction severely, requiring only a small piece of the individual and calling for the suppression of the rest of that individual. A lifetime of piecemeal, partial, heavily contextualized interactions and relationships — an inability to be authentically connected to any group of people — is, Gatto, the core pathology of institutions like schools, which he argues do us harm:

Networks like schools are not communities, just as school training is not education. By preempting fifty percent of the total time of the young, by locking young people up with other young people exactly their own age, by ringing bells to start and stop work, by asking people to think about the same thing at the same time in the same way, by grading people the way we grade vegetables — and in a dozen other vile and stupid ways — network schools steal the vitality of communities and replace it with an ugly mechanism. No one survives these places with their humanity intact, not kids, not teachers, not administrators, and not parents. (Dumbing Us Down, pg. 51)

How many institutions in our lives work this way? Churches regulate our sense of wonder at the universe, usually in pseudo-communities that require doctrinal adherence; workplaces take our time and require our physical presence, in ways that tend to waste enormous amounts of time and energy; we seek out refuge in clubs — gaming groups, SF fandom, sports teams — and find ourselves still hungering for more, for something genuine that we lack. We pressure our relationships, our lovers or spouses, to suffice, to the detriment of relationships and marriages. This is the aloneness in a crowd that so many of us feel, but cannot explain.

Looking into the eyes and menacing maw of the zombie, what we see is our own dehumanization, mirrored in the other — and at the same time, we apprehend the denatured, dehumanized nature of community and relationships in our “modern” world. This, it seems to me, is why Brooks made the geographical choices he did — either unconsciously, or because he focused on places in the “developed world” because of his familiarity with them; the choices carry out, regardless, because most of the places where his story is set are places where the project of modernity, of schooling and regulated work and generalized institutionalization of life has been carried out most thoroughly.

Huh, a theory of zombie narratives. I didn’t think I’d reach that point by the end of this post, but here I am. It’s probably been said before. But I thought it up myself, sort of,. with Gatto’s help.

UPDATE: On second thought, there is more of India than I’d remembered. Only a couple of scenes, but more than I recalled right after finishing the book.

Also, the various versions of the Redeker Plan that appear throughout the text seem to me to support this idea I mentioned above — the institutional dehumanization of the self, and of the other as viewed by the dehumanized self. Hmmm. There’s probably something there worth writing about critically. Hmm.

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