Jason Pettus's Reviews > World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

World War Z by Max Brooks
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Mar 24, 08

Read in March, 2008

(My full review of this book is longer than Goodreads' word-count limitations; find the entire essay at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com].)

Anytime I hear of some funny, gimmicky book suddenly becoming popular among the hipster set, I always squint my eyes and brace myself for the worst; because usually when it comes to such books, the worst is all you can expect to find, an endless series of fluffy pop-culture pieces designed specifically for crafty point-of-purchase display at your favorite corporate superstore, and then a year later to be forgotten by society altogether. And so it's been in the last six months as I've heard more and more about this book World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which supposedly is a hilarious "actual" oral history about an apocalyptic war with the undead that supposedly almost wiped out the human race as we know it; even worse, that it had been inspired by an actual gimmicky point-of-purchase humor book, the dreadful Zombie Survival Guide from a few years ago which had been published specifically and only to make a quick buck off the "overly specific survival guide" craze of the early 2000s. And even worse than all this, the author of both is Max Brooks, as in the son of comedy legend Mel Brooks; and if the son of a comedy legend is trawling the literary gutters of gimmicky point-of-purchase humor books, the chances usually are likely that they have nothing of particular interest to say.

So what a surprise, then, to read the book myself this month, and realize that it's not a gimmicky throwaway humor book at all, but rather a serious and astute look at the next 50 years of global politics, using a zombie outbreak as a metaphorical stand-in for any of the pervasive challenges facing us as an international culture these days (terrorism, global warming, disease, natural disasters), showing with the precision of a policy analyst just how profoundly the old way of doing things is set to fail in the near future when some of these challenges finally become crises. It is in fact an astoundingly intelligent book, as "real" as any essay by Seth Godin or Malcolm Gladwell, basically imagining the debacle of New Orleans multiplied by a million, then imagining what would happen if the Bushists were to react to such a thing in the same way; and even more astounding, Brooks posits that maybe the real key to these future challenges lies with the citizens of third-world countries, in that they are open to greater and faster adaptability than any fat, lazy, middle-class American or European ever could be. Oh yeah, and it's got face-eating zombies too. Did I mention the face-eating zombies?

Because that's the thing to always remember, that this comes from an author who has spent nearly his entire life in the world of comedy and gimmicky projects, not only from family connections but also his own job as a staff writer at Saturday Night Live from 2001 to '03; that no matter how smart World War Z gets (and it gets awfully smart at points), it is still ultimately a fake oral history of an apocalyptic zombie war that supposedly takes place just five or ten years from now, starting as these messes often do as a series of isolated outbreaks in remote third-world villages. And in fact this is where Brooks first starts getting his political digs in, right from the first page of the manuscript itself, by using the initial spread of the zombie virus to comment on the way such past epidemics like HIV have been dealt with by the corrupt old white males who used to be in charge of things; basically, by ignoring the issue as long as it wasn't affecting fellow white males, then only paying attention after it's become an unstoppable epidemic. In Brooks' world, just like the real one of pre-9/11 intelligence-gathering, we see that a few government smarties from around the world really were able to catch the implications of this mysterious new virus while it was still theoretically controllable; just that their memos and papers went ignored for political reasons by those actually in charge, as well as getting lost in the vast bureaucratic shuffle that the Cold War has created in the Western military-industrial complex.

That's probably the most pleasurable part of the first half, to tell you the truth, and by "pleasurable" I mean "witty and humorous in a bleak, horrifying, schauenfreude kind of way" -- of watching the virus become more and more of a threat, of watching entire cities start to go under because of the zombie epidemic, then watching Brooks paint an extremely thinly-veiled portrait of how the Bush administration would deal with such a situation, and by extension any government ruled by a small cabal of backwards, power-hungry religious fundamentalists. And in this, then, World War Z suddenly shifts from a critique about AIDS to a critique about Iraq, showing how in both situations (the Middle East and zombies, that is) the real priority of the people currently in charge is to justify all the trillions of dollars spent at traditional weapon manufacturing companies under the old Cold-War system (companies, by the way, where all the people in charge have lucrative executive jobs when they're not being the people in charge), leading to such ridiculous situations as a full-on tank and aircraft charge mostly for the benefit of the lapdog press outlets who are there covering the "first grand assault." In Iraq, unfortunately, we found that a billion dollars in tanks still can't stop a teenage girl with a bomb strapped to her chest; and metaphorically that might be the most chilling scene in the entirety of World War Z as well, the press-friendly "zombie response" set up by the Bush-led government in New York's Yonkers neighborhood, done not for good strategic reasons but rather to show off the billions of dollars in weapons the government had recently acquired, leading to a virtual slaughter of all the soldiers and journalists there by the chaotic zombie hoard that eventually arrives.

This, then, gets us into the first futuristic posit of Brooks in the novel to not have actually happened in real life yet -- the "Great Panic," that is, when the vast majority of humans suddenly lose faith in whatever government was formerly running their section of the world, and where mass anarchy and chaos leads to the accidental and human-on-human deaths of several hundreds of millions of more people. And again, by detailing a fictional tragedy like a global zombie epidemic, and the complete failure of a Bush-type administration to adequately respond to it, Brooks is eerily predicting here such real situations like last week's complete meltdown of Bear Stearns (the fifth largest investment bank in the entire United States), leading many to start wondering for the first time what exactly would happen if the US dollar itself was to experience the same kind of whirlwind collapse, a collapse that happens so fast (in a single business day in the case of Bear Stearns) that no one in the endless red tape of the government itself has time to actually respond to it?

Brooks' answer here is roughly the same one Cormac McCarthy proposed in last year's Pulitzer-winning The Road; chaos, bloodshed, violence, inhumanity, an everyone-for-themselves mentality from the very people we trusted to lead us in such times of crisis. Make no mistake, this is a damning and devastating critique of the corrupt conservatives currently in charge of things; a book that uses the detritus of popular culture to masquerade as a funny and gross book about zombies, but like the best fantastical literature in history is in fact a prescient look at our current society. It's unbelievable, in fact, how entertaining and engrossing this novel is throughout its middle, given how this is usually the part of any book that is the slowest and least interesting; here Brooks uses the naturally slow middle of his own story to make the majority of his political points, and to get into a really wonky side of global politics that is sure to satisfy all you hardcore policy junkies (as well as military fetishists).

Because that's the final thing important to understand about World War Z, is that it's a novel with a truly global scope; Brooks here takes on not only what such a zombie epidemic would do to our familiar US of A, but also how such an epidemic would spread in the village-centric rural areas of southeast Asia, the infrastructure-poor wastelands of Russia and more, and especially how each society fights the epidemic in slightly different ways, some with more success than others. For example, Brooks posits that in such places as India, population density is just too high to do much of any good; in his fictional world history, such countries are basically decimated by such a catastrophe, with there basically being few humans even left in India by the time everything is over. Other countries, though, used to picking up as a nation and fleeing for other lands, survive the zombie outbreaks quite well; those who are already used to being refugees, for example, see not too much of a difference in their usual lifestyle from this latest turn in events, ironically making them the societies most suited for survival in such a world. (This is opposed to all the clueless middle-class Americans in the novel, for example, who in a panic make for the wilds of northern Canada, in the blind hope that the winter weather will freeze the zombies into non-action; although that turns out to be true, poor planning unfortunately results in the deaths of tens of millions of people anyway, from hypothermia and starvation and plain ol' mass-murder.)

And this is ultimately what I mean by this book being such a politically astute one; because as...
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Comments (showing 1-22 of 22) (22 new)

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oriana Shit, Jason, I always adore your reviews, but this one is seriously amazing. I knew that I hazily wanted to maybe eventually read this book one day, but now I think I'd better stop messing around and procure myself a copy quick.

Thanks as always for your terrific work!!


message 2: by Oma (new) - added it

Oma Yeah, what he said!


message 3: by Claire (new) - added it

Claire S Yeah, I really enjoy your writing style, and content, which is pretty much all of it: and had thought myself to write and here others already have! Thanks much!


message 4: by KMO (new) - rated it 5 stars

KMO I had already decided to read this book, so, as much as I was enjoying your review, I stopped reading to avoide further spoilage.

That said, while I had "already decided" to read the book, after posting this comment, I'll be heading over to Amazon.com to actually place the order. The book has been in my shopping cart for weeks, always getting bumped to the "save for later" penalty box when I actually place an order.

Peace.


Jeannot667 I think you might be reading a bit too much into this... All governments collapse in the book and the epidemic starts and gets out of contol in China. There is no mention of Bush or of the Republicans. Finally, Cuba ends up being the big power, not China or any Asian country...
Great book though.


Amanda (Pearl the Book Girl) This is a great review. I listened to this book on cd and it's SO cool in that format because it is a collection of interviews. It's great to hear all of the different accents and genders, you really get a good sense of how global this was. I'm on the final cd but I really loved this book!


Brandon @Amanda - You should read the book sometime, as far as I know, there is not an unabridged audio book, so you may have missed out on some parts. But I agree, I loved hearing the voice acting in the audio when I trie dit out as well.


message 8: by Jason (new) - added it

Jason Vanden Heuvel Pretentious much?


Alan Chen No mention of the Bush administration? How about Grover Carlson (sound familiar?), the PR-obsessed official who ends up literally shoveling sh*t after the war?


message 10: by Jane (new)

Jane The audio version does have stories missing.


Kalven I personally hated the book, but this review reflects it very well. The book was much more about political commentary and societal issues than it was about zombies. It's just a shame that it's marketed as a horror novel about zombies when it clearly isn't.


Steve Excellent review, Jason.


message 13: by Oni (new) - rated it 5 stars

Oni I just found out about this book when they decide to make a movie about it. Damned good book. I agree with your comments on the book. This is a serious books about politics, even about humanity itself whether we can survive as a species. Excellent review.


Christopher You saved me the time of reviewing this book by doing it better than I would have anyway. Spot-on what I felt, before, during, and after this read.


Hannah Fantastic review. You put into words basically everything I loved about the book. It's a real shame when others who have read it don't see the political undertones that are applicable in the real world.


message 16: by Kayla (new) - added it

Kayla Stacey Currently reading this book and already want to cite your review, as you discuss many points I would be too overwhelmed to organize. Well done :)


Allison Yes, yes, and yes. I am just going to point to this excellent review instead of writing one myself. I could never say it so well.


message 18: by Fran (new) - rated it 5 stars

Fran Thank you for saying so clearly what I wanted to ..


Kiran Amanda (Pearl the Book Girl) wrote: "This is a great review. I listened to this book on cd and it's SO cool in that format because it is a collection of interviews. It's great to hear all of the different accents and genders, you re..."

I agree! I just finished listening to the Abridged Audiobook and the Lost Files and I was just incredible impressed. I think listening to them on audiobook helped me truly appreciate the mockumentary style of the book.


message 20: by Laurie (new)

Laurie I'm on a waiting list for the audiobook I can't wait after reading your review. No wonder my friend said the movie was nothing like the book


Remittance Girl Thanks for the intelligent and well written review. I agree with you. It was a masterpiece of social critique masquerading as pop spec fiction.


Elengendro Excellent review. I am reading the book just now and I am fascinated about the geopolitical implications. The zombies are just an excuse, and that's why I am loving the book


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