World War Z

An Oral History of the Zombie War

Max Brooks

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Any reader of books knows that the books you love, the books you proselytize, the books you recommend to people at parties and display proudly on your shelves, say almost as much about you as you might about them.  And, of course, some kinds of books are more rewarding, in terms of what they say about you, than others.

Masterpieces make for lousy social accessories.  These are the Books Everyone Thinks Are Great.  No matter how much you may love a classic, no one will think better of you for it, for the simple reason that they all also believe that they love the classics.  Loving these books is no feat, because it requires no personal judgement at all.  You won’t ever impress anyone by loving ‘Hamlet’.

Some books, it’s fun to love them because everyone knows that they ought to love them, but no one has actually read them.  We can think of these as the Books You Love So That You Can Show You’ve Read Them.  This is how people who actually like Proust get to feel all the time*.

*I’m not one of these people.

And then there are the books which no one expects anyone to enjoy, because they aren’t fun at all.  These are Books Which Show Character.  It’s really fun to love these books, because then people think that you have unexplored depths, that you must know something that they don’t know, or that you possess a tortured, artistic soul.  Imagine how fun it would be to announce that your favorite book was, oh, ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’.

But my own personal favorite category, in terms of social accessorizing via reading list, is Secretly Great Books Everyone Else Thinks Are Trash.  I’m a little contrarian, so it gives me enormous (and, yes, extremely juvenile) pleasure to go to bat for books which everyone else thinks are Beach Reading, to argue that these books are, instead, Great Art.

World War ZSo here I go:  I think that ‘World War Z‘ is Great Art.

I’m not exaggerating for effect – I love this book.  I think it’s magnificent.  I’ve now read it three times, and I like it better every time I read it.  No, I love it better every time I read it, and I refuse to be ashamed of this fact.

World War Z‘ is, as advertised, the oral history of the Zombie War.  It is a collection of the personal reminiscences of the survivors, from all over the world, from the ordinary citizens who witnessed it to the presidents and generals who prosecuted it.  It covers the entire war, from the first few cases, the handling (or mishandling) of the outbreak by various nations, the desperate flight of millions of people from the cities, the overwhelming and near extinction of the human race, and the eventual beating back, the destruction, of the zombie menace.

I love this book.  I love this book because it is so smart.  It’s smart and it’s thorough, thought-out and careful and precise and imagined down to the last detail.

I’m going to land on this point with a little more emphasis, because I am sure that most people unfamiliar with this work (or, heaven forfend, people who saw the movie) would be surprised, perhaps, to hear ‘smart’ as the primary description of a book about, uh, zombies.  Literal zombies.

But that’s the thing about smart – it can work with anything, can make something brilliant out of starting material which is, well, stupid.

ZombieZombies have never been my favorite metaphor.  All the ghouls and goblins have their metaphorical purpose, the existential conundrum they were written to pose to us.  Vampires are about the price of immortality; werewolves are about our inner beasts.  Ghosts are about death (obviously).  Zombies are about humanity, what makes us human, whether it’s our bodies or our minds.  Zombies (usually) ask the essential question: when do our loved ones stop being themselves?  When can we let them go?  When are we willing to destroy them?  Could you shoot your mother in the face, to save yourself?  Your child?  Your spouse?

But that’s not what ‘World War Z‘ asks, not exactly.  ‘World War Z’ is a novel of geopolitics; it is a novel of logistics.  Its nearest analog, to my mind, is Asimov’s ‘Foundation‘ trilogy.  It’s a novel about how societies cope with unimagined and unmanageable threats, threats that come from within.  Arational threats.

I recognize that this is not ‘Walking Dead’-sexy, but it’s a lot smarter.  And it’s more interesting, more fun to read.  There aren’t any hand-to-hand battles with zombies here, no slow, wrenching transformations of loved ones.  This isn’t a book about people as individuals; it’s a book about people as nations, people as animals.

And it’s plausible, super plausible.  It’s the kind of the book that makes you feel as though, if a zombie apocalypse happens, it’ll look a lot like this.  Not the way it will look to you (or to a bunch of people way better-looking or tougher than you), but how it will look from above, how it will look on a grand scale.

Max Brooks
Max Brooks

This is so much more interesting than watching a bunch of grubby people scramble around in the woods.  Zombies just aren’t that interesting as an interpersonal problem, but as a logistical problem, they are fascinating.  They are both a disease and an enemy, a contagion and an infiltration.  And ‘World War Z‘ captures this so well, holding the problem up to the light and holding it this way and that, so that you can admire facets of it that you’ve never noticed before.

I’ll give you an example, perhaps my favorite example, of a really great tweak to the old zombie problem.  It comes in the middle of the book, as the tide begins to turn.

(Remember that the book is structured as a series of interviews)

“The biggest problem were quislings.

Quislings?

Yeah, you know, the people that went nutballs and started acting like zombies.

Could you elaborate?

Well, as I understand it, there’s a type of person who just can’t deal with a fight-or-die situation.  They’re always drawn to what they’re afraid of.  Instead of resisting it, they want to please it, join it, try to be like it…But you couldn’t do it in this war.  You couldn’t just throw up your hands and say, ‘Hey, don’t kill me, I’m on your side.’  There was no gray area in this fight, no in between.  I guess some people just couldn’t accept that.  It put them right over the edge.  They started moving like zombies, sounding like them, even attacking, trying to eat other people…Do you know that quislings were the reason some people used to think they were immune?…I think the saddest thing about them is that they gave up so much and in the end lost anyway.

Why is that?

‘Cause even though we can’t tell the difference between them, the real zombies can.  Remember early in the war, when everybody was trying to work on a way to turn the living dead against one another?  There was all this ‘documented proof’ about infighting – eyewitness accounts and even footage of one zombie attacking another.  Stupid.  It was zombies attacking quislings, but you never would have known that to look at it.  Quislings don’t scream.  They just lie there, not even trying to fight, writhing in that slow, robotic way, eaten alive by the very creatures they’re trying to be. (p. 198)

You have to admit, that is brilliant.  It’s better than brilliant: it’s correct.  It is a true observation about humans, but placed in an entirely fictional, terrifying, absurd context.  Or, to be more precise, it is an entirely fictional, terrifying, absurd context which draws your attention to a true observation about humans you had already made, but had never really understood.

That’s what science fiction is for.  That’s what it does: reteaches you things you already knew, or should have known.  This is also, by the way, what Great Art does.  And I will defend as Great Art any book which takes something you thought you knew, no matter how stupid, and then twists and turns it back around on you, so that you discover that you were looking at yourself all along.

Fates and Furies

By Lauren Groff

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Sometimes, I just don’t have anything to say about a book.

This isn’t because the book is bad, necessarily.  On the contrary, some books which are considered Great Books have left me shrugging in this way, with a complete lack of comment.  I felt this way when I read ‘The Adventures of Augie March‘ by Saul Bellow, and ‘Neuromancer‘ by William Gibson, and ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being‘ by Milan Kundera (that last one is obviously a joke – I HATED ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’).

And that’s sort of how I feel about ‘Fates and Furies‘: like, ‘Well, that was a book’.  I liked it, actually (I think); I read it quickly, with pleasure.  I just don’t have anything to say about it.

Fates and FuriesFates and Furies‘ is the story of a marriage.  It is a marriage joined in youth, impetuously, by two badly damaged and beautiful young people right after they graduate from college.  The first half of the book is the story of their married life from the point of view of the husband, Lotto (short for Lancelot) Satterwhite, failed actor turned successful playwright, as he adores, fears, and chases his wife through their decades of marriage.

The second half of the novel is told from the point of view of his wife, Mathilde, after Lotto’s sudden death in his forties.  Her widowhood sends Mathilde, now without an anchor, reeling into fury and despair, and through her flashbacks we learn how Lotto’s wife saw their marriage.  In a sense, we learn what really happened.

Of course, that’s the whole point: in a marriage, as in any human relationship, there is no “what really happened” – there are only the beliefs of the participants and the witnesses.  There may be a provable fact here and there, but these matter so much less than you would think, certainly less than you would hope.  In the end, our own experience is king, and ‘Fates and Furies‘ is about how discordant that experience can be even in the most “successful” marriage.

Which, of course, is all very true, and well-worn literary territory, and Groff does it nicely, and I just don’t have a ton more to say about it.  It’s a good read; it’s compelling.  You’re interested in these people, at least while you’re with them, but I doubt that I’ll be thinking about Lotto and Mathilde again.  ‘Fates and Furies‘ isn’t the first novel (and won’t be the last) to tell me that love and understanding are two different things, and that all love is, in a way, narcissism, but that it is no less necessary for that.

Maybe it’s just because I’m so cynical by nature, but I just don’t find novels about what an emotional sham marriage is to be at all scandalous, pleasingly or otherwise.  We get it, don’t we?  We’re all strangers to each other, in the end.  This path is so well trod by now that I really can’t muster even the most banal observations about it.

However, it seems as though I am the only one with nothing to say about ‘Fates and Furies‘.  Nothing to say, and, in fact, two years too late to say it.  Apparently, ‘Fates and Furies’ was the book to read in 2015.

According to The Guardian:

“Not only has Groff’s novel, by the Wall Street Journal’s count, landed on more US year-end best-of lists than any other work of fiction, but Amazon has made it official, stamping its endorsement on Fates and Furies as the retailer’s book of the year. The cherry on the top came from Barack Obama, who earlier this month told People magazine he liked Fates and Furies more than anything else he’d read in 2015.”

Really?  Huh.  More than anything else?

The Guardian offered this explanation for the book’s wild success:

Lauren Groff
Lauren Groff

“On the surface, this premise echoes the familiar observation that even two people who live together intimately can end up feeling they hardly know each other. Given that most fiction is read by women, and that the purchase of a hardcover novel suggests a certain midlife affluence, it’s hardly surprising that so many book buyers would find this theme arresting and easy to relate to.  They are at that point in life when they realise that a wedding is less the end of a fairytale than the beginning of a mystery, and sometimes an ugly one.”

Well, I may not have much to say about ‘Fates and Furies’ itself, but I have a lot to say about that.

First of all, I don’t think that ‘Fates and Furies‘ is about the fact that two people who live together intimately can end up feeling they hardly know each other; I think it’s about the fact that two people who live together can feel that they know each other intimately and be completely wrong about that.  What is askew between Lotto and Mathilde is not known to them.  We are aware of the discrepancy in their understandings of their marriage, but they are not (Lotto, in particular, is not; Mathilde is a much murkier and more complicated figure).

Second, I do not think that women have special access to the distances and alienations of marriage, that they experience a special loneliness that men do not feel.  Or, perhaps, to be more precise, I suspect that men must have their own loneliness, the equal counterpart of woman’s, and that a book about alienation would therefore be of interest to them as well.

Third, I do wish people would stop insisting that women are all in for fairytale marriages.  It makes us all sound stupid, girlish and naive.  Women are capable of being perfectly clear-eyed about marriage, certainly just as much as men are, and people should stop speaking about women’s marital expectations as though they were necessarily childish.

Often, when books make big, cultural splashes, it tells us more about the culture than the book.  Certainly, ‘Fates and Furies‘ is a very competent novel of its kind – I do not feel that I wasted my time reading it.  Grim, well-executed novels of bourgeois marriage are always enjoyable, in their way.  But the frenzy around it says more about us than about ‘Fates and Furies’, I think.  Maybe, at a time when we are feeling more and more alienated, novels which are about alienation even in the most intimate spaces will mesmerize and frighten us.

Or maybe I’m missing something.  Maybe the desire to be really, totally, perfectly known by the person that loves you is what people expect from marriage; perhaps perfect intimacy is a dream cherished by hearts more romantic than mine (which would be most hearts).  And perhaps those romantic hearts are the ones that catapulted ‘Fates and Furies‘ to the tops of the bestseller lists.  Perhaps they did not find it, as I did, obvious.  Perhaps, to the romantic heart, ‘Fates and Furies’ is, in fact, a terrifying debunking of our last true fairytale.