Blogger on Books VI – World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks


Just two days before posting this review, I said this on Kristin Kraves Books June Wrap up, “I did try audio books but I lose the plot (get distracted) and miss things, or fall asleep. So lots of starting and no finishing on the audio book front for me.” Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s not the medium but the message. I have to do more research, of course, and I’m not about to give up books-books anytime soon (there’s something to be said for your own mental voice telling you the story and something about the way you actively engage with what you’re reading if you’re actually reading). But I’ve finished (without falling asleep or losing the script) two audio books this year, two audio books ever, and I had no problem being super-engaged. One was Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime and one was this one right here World War Z.

Oh this book was dope, so dope.

I should mention that I saw the movie World War Z starring Brad Pitt saving the world on the big screen and I liked it, because I really like zombie movies and that was a damn good one. But no spoilers there because the title, in my opinion, is the only thing the two stories have in common. Maybe part of what kept me alert was listening out for when the streams crossed (Ghostbusters reference), but they never did. And I’m not at all put out by that.

(as you can see the movie is very action driven while the book is decidedly character driven but does not skimp on the action)

World War Z, the book by Mel Brooks and Ann Bancroft’s kid (I had to say that though he’s roughly my age-ish because I’ve enjoyed them both, Blazing Saddles to Agnes of God to their collaborations like To Be or Not To Be; of course their progeny is talented). Zombies though. Hm. Well, Max Brooks knows more than zombies, in my view, he knows how to tell an improbable war history in a way that makes it seem … possible. To say this book was compelling would be an understatement.

It helped that it ‘read’ less like an audio book narration and more like one of those radio serials that existed before television – in the sense that the voices became the characters didn’t just say their lines. Note to self: an audio book needs a compelling presenter, and if you’ve got it like that, a whole cast of them.

But let’s get to the structure of the story – I suppose one thing the book and the movie have in common is the UN guy tracking down information. Except in the case of the movie, it’s this lone, globe trotting hero racing against time to pull the stories together in a way that can point toward a source and potentially a cure for the virus that has turned hundreds of millions of people the globe over into mindless cannibals who move with the speed of the 28 Days Later infected. While in the case of the book the UN guy’s behind a tape gathering stories for his report – not the centre of the story by any stretch of the imagination – talking to the survivors of the zombie war. And yet somehow the book is so much more riveting, so much tenser, so much more emotionally harrowing than the movie (and I don’t agree with what seems to be the prevailing opinion that the book as structured couldn’t be made in to a movie, it would just require decentering the Brad Pitts of the world; the handsome white man saves the world trope). Because here’s the thing, though you know they are survivors or else they wouldn’t be there to be interviewed by him, there is a very real sense of danger and tension as they tell their stories. There’s this one female military type who has to get to an extraction point after crash landing without getting herself bit and though her lucid retelling of the tale should be enough reassurance that she’s fine, when they’re on her tail I feel the will she or won’t she escape anxiety. The pacing is amazing, the voices are vibrant and distinctive and they draw you in. There’s a twist at the end of this particular woman’s story that doesn’t surprise really but reminds that all is not as it seems and you have good reason to worry.

What I like about this book as well is how descriptive it is (“the kind of face you’d see in a pre-war heartburn commercial”), how you not only see  the zombies but get a sense of the real human toll, how it illustrates the effect of and reaction to the virus on all parts of the globe through varied voices (with a real attempt to cast accurately with respect to the accents) from regular people (like a social media addict who doesn’t really realize or really care about what’s going on for the longest while) to politicians who have to make decisions like to go to war or stay safe, to the stranded crew of a Chinese sub whose government kind of wants to kill them to Russian foot soldiers being put through decimation to international aid workers and local voices in Africa, the Caribbean, Australia, outer space. The miracle of how each of these people, from a developmentally challenged child to a blind Japanese man, survived makes for absorbing reading – as you root and hope and despair and celebrate and wonder. The wondering falls in to the category of what next beyond surviving, how to tip the scale once again in favour of living humans.

It’s important to remember – especially when some perspectives on geo-politics feels distinctly western and American specifically and when some of these voices feel like broad cultural caricatures, which some of them do (something those of us on the fringe are always mindful of) that they are meant to be individuals not representative of everyone like them (and that the author is American). The remorseless capitalist is clearly a stand-in for remorseless capitalism but he also comes across like a person, a completely shameless person. Yeah, like one of the characters later in the book, you wonder at the absurd arbitrariness of life, of who lives and who dies. And that’s one interesting thing about the book is the questions it raises and explores with respect to human nature, who are we when the sky is falling, do we pull together or become like the zombies and cannibalize each other. With respect to that question the book strikes a tone that’s at once hopeful and cynical, and that’s perhaps the truest answer there is.

Books like World War Z, zombies aside, become universally appealing because beyond the action, the politics, the poignant and riveting voices, they challenge us to ask question about ourselves in our times. So that for instance, what one survivor says about refugees being caught between death and death and leaning toward hope – what another says about “refugees from all over the world uniting under the common flag of survival” – is so relevant amidst 2018’s refugee crises and refugee crises of the past whether we’re talking about Haitians in the 1980s or people from Latin America today. It reminds us that there but for the grace of a zombie apocalypse, super hurricanes and other climate change impacts, or war go any of us.

My favourite bit? The Cuba chapter describing how hard the Leeward and Windward islands fought to protect their homeland (because Leeward Island, Caribbean-er, gyal from Ottos, Antigua, all day every day). Here’s the problem though, I now want to read all the books in the World War Z universe, and there’s no more room on my TBR list.

The main page of my Blogger on Books IV series can be found here. The main page of Blogger on Books V can be found here. To check out my books and see what reviewers and readers have been saying about them, go here and here.