“I’ve heard it said that the Holocaust has no survivors, that even those who managed to remain technically alive were so irreparably damaged, that their spirit, their soul, the person that they were supposed to be, was gone forever.”
With the recent continuation of The Walking Dead Season 2, and a World War Z movie starring Brad Pitt slated for December, 2012, now seems like the perfect time to revisit one of the most iconic works of the zombie survival genre, Max Brooks’ World War Z.
Max Brooks first established himself in the genre with his debut, The Zombie Survival Guide (2003), in which he establishes the universe where World War Z (2006) also takes place. The continuity between the two books is seen in the many cross-over references that each book shares such as survival strategies, histories on zombie uprisings, and methods for dispatching the undead. World War Z is patterned after the format of Studs Terkel’s, The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two (1984), and inspired by the numerous zombie films of George Romero.
World War Z is a quick read, coming in at approximately 342 pages. The book is split into eight sections, each containing interviews which coincide with the war as it progresses from mysterious outbreak through the end of the war. Within each section are a series of interviews in chronological order. The narrative is presented almost entirely through these interviews which contain the unique views, feelings, and experiences of the subject of the interview. These interviews are carefully crafted to lead into one another, though not always in obvious ways, and to present a somewhat disjointed narrative on how the war began, was fought, and some initial thoughts on its aftermath.
Some readers have expressed difficulty with the book’s structure and its absence of explanations or segues between each interview. While the reviewer had no trouble seeing how each interview fit together, this is a fairly common complaint. Sometimes the reader may be puzzled by an abrupt shift in topic or tone between interviews, but the connections always become apparent either during the interview or during a later interview. The brilliance of how the interviews are arranged really comes to light during the concluding interviews later in the book.
Though the book is written in short chunks and easily understood language, the vivid imagery and subtext are apparent throughout. For instance, there is an interview in which a woman describes her family’s perilous journey north, and their experiences once they reach relative safety. Without spoiling anything, the gradual transition from open community to frozen hell is really memorable. Even more intriguing is Brooks’ exercise of restraint in not overtly describing the desperate actions of the survivors, and his ability to convey just how far they went to survive nonetheless. Suffice it to say, the harrowing tales of survival are haunting and some are will probably stick with the reader for a few days.
While World War Z is certainly an enjoyable book on the surface, it begs the reader to consider very real questions of morality, community, and social interaction. Brooks opted to have book’s interviews taken ten years after the conclusion of the war, while society was still recovering and only beginning to grapple with the tough questions raised by reconstruction. It is this deeper level at which World War Z truly shines, and which raises it above the clutter of so many cheap zombie knock-offs which flood the market. The commentary on things we take for granted, the often petty squabbles between nations, and how quickly society might crumble are very real concerns.
World War Z is a must read for fans of survival horror and zombies, and it stands as a high-water mark for the genre. This is the serious and realistic treatment of the subject matter that many fans look for. However, the book is not an action-oriented survival horror blockbuster, and readers looking for a blow by blow where a single main character travels the world to fighting zombies will be disappointed. Readers will have plenty of time to get through the book before the movie comes out, and can look forward to cheering and jeering as their favorite stories are given the Hollywood treatment.
Are you prepared to survive, to what lengths would you go…and would you even want to?