Brendan's Reviews > Pontypool Changes Everything

Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess
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Jul 19, 14

bookshelves: 2011, evolution, fiction, horror, scifi, zombies, lovecraftian
Read from November 10 to December 04, 2011

Somewhere in Northern Ontario, near a town called Pontypool, a rabies-like virus has made the jump from biological threat to meme, riding existing sounds from one person to the next and driving them mad. The poor bastards who get infected first lose touch with reality, and then, in frustration, they attack the people around them in a horrorshow of gore and sudden violence. But before they become violent, they spend a lot of time walking around, speaking words that are more or less nonsense, but carry the same infectious meme that overwhelmed them. Oh, in case I'm being too cryptic, they're zombies.

It's a compelling read, but a challenging one. A few thoughts:

The book tells the story of the outbreak from a variety of viewpoints, following several different characters as they descend down the rabbit hole of the disease, then shifting to the omniscient narrator to provide rapid-fire descriptions of the wide-spread ramifications of the outbreak.
Burgess' writing style employs a deep vocabulary and a sudden brutality that serves the mesmerizing nature of the story and the disease well. It also uses a free-wheeling narrative style that's pretty disconcerting and difficult to follow. I understand this to be the idea that the book's story is breaking down in sense the same way the zombies' minds are breaking down.
One of the driving horrors of the book is the invisibility of the disease -- there are several characters whom we suspect are infected, but may in fact just have gone mad in a kind of contact high. Some of the events toward the end of the book are so bizarre that it's difficult to tell what we're supposed to make of them: are they supposed to have happened? If so, not enough explanation. Are they fantasies in one of the insane minds? If so, which one, given that the narrator doesn't help us distinguish that. Or perhaps that's the point, that we're going just as mad from our detached narrator's chair.
In the Afterward to this new edition (published after the movie was made), the author apologizes for the book, suggesting that it isn't as good as he would like but that he resisted tampering with it. He confesses that he wrote it shortly after graduating with a degree in semiotics, and there are bits that only make sense if you have that rare bit of jargon installed in your brain. He throws around words like syntagm and paradigm and linguistic terms like dipthong. It's not too overwhelming, but clearly reflects his recent grad school experience.
Alas, the book doesn't hold together for me in its conclusion. I can't say whether this reflects a narrative flaw or my own inability to parse the increasingly mad events that occur in the late pieces of the book, or if another read would clear it up for me. But ultimately I came away less satisfied than I was with the movie version of the same narrative (which evolves in an entirely different way).

It's a good book, better than many of the straight-forward zombie stories that focus just on killing and use conventional storytelling styles. Worth a read if you like capital L literature and zombies.
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