Thanks to the urgings of a few close readers in my life, I picked up World War Z by Max Brooks. It’s one of those books that sit on my to-read shelf for so long that I can’t remember why I have it up in the first place.
The zombie apocalypse genre has exploded in our pop culture over the last decade, and these stories most commonly bring us scenes of sheer terror. Survivors flee from swarms of zombies that chase them like an Olympic track star, while their loved ones are taken down and get their limbs chomped off. World War Z takes it a step further, and I was struck by Brooks’ artful and particular depictions.
The descriptions are vivid. In a scene from the battle at Yonkers, Todd Wainio, an American soldier, is at his post facing down millions of zombies flooding out of New York City. He thinks of the media representation of zombies and the portrayal of them in formal clothing. Most of the ones he sees are wearing nightgowns or in the nude, because the victims, he says, suffered at homes in their beds before they turned.
A few years after the country has been overrun, Wainio rejoins the military to take part in an offense to take back the country. He can tell which of them turned at the beginning of the war based on their cloudy eyes. Since their tear ducts no longer produce tears, their eyeballs are badly scratched. Not only do we know what color their eyes are, but we know why.
Each narrative embodies a different voice and experience. By telling the story as an oral history, there is an opening for widely unique experiences. We hear a French soldier talk of the confinement and confusion of fighting in Parisian sewers. An astronaut describes what it’s like to watch the breakout and the carnage on satellite footage. The narrative of the underwater zombie war was particularly unique, but my favorite was the story of the feral girl.
There is an interview with a young woman in her early twenties, who was a young girl when the outbreak occurred. Orphaned in the earliest years of the zombie wars, she is part of a generation known as the feral children, so her development stalled at the age at which she lost her parents. She tells her story as a child would, and she recalls an eerie sequence of events in which she survives a massacre but doesn’t fully comprehend it.
The rules are unique to this world. This is a war after all, so people talk about the zombies as if they are an enemy. A typical enemy of war fights with the preservation of their own life in mind. One can at least expect that their enemy may act in a certain way for the sake of their own survival, but the enemy in this war does not have a sense of self-preservation. They are not afraid of bombs or bullets, and they tenaciously pursue their prey. In his interview the astronaut reflects on watching a zombie dig in the ground, hunting for a burrowing animal. The “Zed Head” as he calls it digs for days driven by his “biological instinct” before it gives up, losing the scent of the mole.
So really what it comes down to is that Brooks thoughtfully imagines this world; what it’s like when zombies walk under water, what happens when children are orphaned in the carnage, how the powers that be respond to the crisis, or the affect that a human shield has. Not only does he play on our hunger for a good story, but he gives us a well-seasoned meal. He goes so far as to imagine the world in which zombies have taken over. The narrative brings its reader up close and embodies every angle, every sight, touch, and sound.