Thursday, January 18, 2007

Initial Thoughts on World War Z

When I first purchased Max Brooks’ World War Z I knew very little about the book. Subtitled “An Oral History of the Zombie War,” however, there wasn’t all that much else I needed to know.

Zombies? Sounds good to me.

What interested me most was how Brooks would handle the minutia of what the title of his book implied. We know what zombies are, and having seen enough zombie movies, we have an expectation of how they should act and behave. In a book though, a lot of the smaller details that films tend to glaze over would be much more difficult to hide.

Where did the first zombie come from? What exactly causes the zombiism? What physically happens to the body after contamination? Questions like this can be left to speculation in a film filled with exploding heads, tearing limbs and spouting blood. Books, for the most part, don’t have these corporeal distractions, or at least they can't rely on the same graphic depictions. So Brooks presumably wouldn’t be getting by on camera tricks, editing and gore.

Over the last couple of days I’ve managed to get through the first 75 pages or so, and I can gladly report that Brooks delivers on all those questions, and many, many more. In fact, Brooks has created a text that is vastly more interesting and engaging than any zombie film I’ve seen, and I really like zombie films.

The magic comes from World War Z’s brilliant structure. Instead of crafting a straight narrative, Brooks relates the story of the zombie war through short interviews with people around the world whose lives were affected in some way. To do this, he imagines himself a researcher working for a government agency after the war has ended. He is tasked with compiling an analysis of what went wrong from the emergence of the threat all the way through to the war’s end. NPR printed the book’s introduction online, which you can find here.

While Brooks deals with all the particulars of the zombie lore more than adequately, what is perhaps more interesting, especially in the early going is the descriptions and depictions of the world’s reactions. Through his interview structure, Brooks maps the how’s and why’s of the spread of the zombie virus (yeah, it’s a virus). This same structure also provides an easy mechanism by which Brooks can seamlessly blend exposition on the current state of affairs and foreshadowing for where things are headed. When interviewees off-handedly use terms like “The Great Panic,” you can’t help but get excited to see just how great it’s going to be.

Thus far, Brooks has delivered on all of my expectations, and has even provided a solid dose of the classic gore (fingers bitten off, brains splattering, etc.) that makes zombies so much fun. His book is a terrific blend of genre based excitement and genuinely well crafted fiction. It may seem hard to believe, but it's been a little while since I've encounted a page turner quite like this.

No comments: