Robert Beveridge's Reviews > Pontypool Changes Everything

Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess
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Mar 16, 2010

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bookshelves: owned-and-still-own
Read from January 16 to 27, 2010 — I own a copy , read count: 1

Tony Burgess, Pontypool Changes Everything (ECW Press, 1998)

And the award for most-adapted screenplay goes to Bruce McDonald's Pontypool, one of the best films of 2008. I say “most-adapted” because Burgess' screenplay for the film and the book Burgess wrote ten years before the film was released are two entirely different animals. One can't really say that the book is better than the movie or vice versa when comparing them against one another; they must be looked at as two entirely separate, or at best tangentially related, pieces of work. That said, the movie is better than the book (and according to his afterword, Mr. Burgess agrees with me). While I'd recommend the movie to anyone, the book requires a certain mindset, as well as an ability to put up with (or enjoy) writing that can only be described as hallucinatory; you'll often wonder what it is, exactly, you're reading. Also in that afterword, Burgess mentions that he wrote the book just after graduating university with a semiotics degree. Be warned, he uses it extensively, and not just in the inventive method of viral transmission that underlies both book and film. (I should also mention as a side note for my American readers that ECW Press, despite its recent forays into the memoirs of professional wrestlers, has nothing to do with Extreme Championship Wrestling—though since those memoirs are the only ECW books widely available in America, one can be forgiven for thinking so.)

In the movie, we see the genesis of the plague. In the book, the plague has always existed; it has evolved along with humans. As with many zombie plagues, no one really knows what triggered it, though a few hypotheses are offered by various people throughout the book. Also unlike the movie, which focuses on Grant Mazzy (who is changed from a television personality into a radio DJ), the book is an ensemble piece. Mazzy, in fact, is the only major character in the book to survive the transition relatively intact. You will meet very few people here you recognize, if you've seen the film. The book is divided into two sections. The first of them follows Les Reardon, a mentally ill drama coach, as he wanders through the beginnings of the zombie plague looking for his wife and infant son (this section of the book is called Autobiography, by the way). We have to wonder, though, given his mental condition, how much of what he sees is real. Then comes the second part of the book (Novel), which focuses on two other characters, Julie and Jim. They are the children of the zombie couple Les Reardon stole a car from in Autobiography, and one of the few places the two parts of the novel cross is in showing that scene from a different perspective early in Novel.

I have not tried to outline a plot in that synopsis because (a) the plot of each section of the book is entirely different (though both do move toward a single point; pay attention, however, or you'll miss the single sentence that connects the two), and (b) plot is, at best, a tertiary consideration in Pontypool Changes Everything. This is a book that is about its language more than anything else (kind of the literary equivalent of a Godard film). This is, of necessity, going to make it a vertical-market item, and I should stress here that you shouldn't by the book just because you liked the movie, in case you haven't already gotten that from what's above. That said, of the writers who engage in this sort of literary masturbation, Burgess is one of the most readable I've come across; he's certainly orders of magnitude better than, say, Claude Simon. Actually, now that I think about it, there are some parallels to be made with Georges Bataille (especially in Novel), and because I'm thick, I completely missed the fact that the entire Novel section is an allusion to Truffaut until just now (Jules and Jim? Yes, I caught the reference, you'd have to be an idiot not to, but I never made the structural connection until I started writing this paragraph). Given that, while Pontypool Changes Everything is probably a serviceable introduction to this kind of writing, you may be better off starting with a book whose shock value is up front and in your face (the classic example, and my strongest recommendation, would be Bataille's Story of the Eye); Burgess is just as interested in transgressive realms here, and if you can't make it through Story of the Eye there's stuff in Novel that's guaranteed to squick you out, but Burgess' aim is to seduce the reader with Autobiography, a much more conventional (as regards its conformation to societal norms) piece of writing. There's a lot to be said here about the breakdown of society and how humans go back to being savages, but I'm probably not the one to say it.

My rating for this book has been all over the place; I've changed it four times as I've been writing this review, in fact, as I understand more about what (I think, anyway) Burgess was trying to do. Thank your lucky stars Pontypool was directed by Bruce McDonald instead of Godard (or any of the other New Wave directors who may still be alive and working); he probably would have tried to make a film out of the book, rather than Burgess' endlessly-modified screenplay. There are very few books I've read that I'd consider unfilmable, and this is one of them. I'm still not entirely sure I liked it, per se, though I respect what Burgess was trying to do with it (more so now that I've made all those connections). And now I think it's even more of a vertical-market book than I did originally; it's not for semioticians, it's not for zombie fans, it's for semiotician zombie fans. There can't be all that many of those around. ***
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