The Short Version: An oral history of the zombie outbreak that swept the globe and nearly led to the extinction of the human race. Created to provide a counterpoint to the pure statistics of the UN Commission Report, it puts a human face on the war and the “plague years”, chronologically going from the first outbreaks of what was then called ‘African rabies’ to the present (after the first clean spring in the US – no zombie sightings).
The Review: You know, I have to say that I found it strange that this book – of all books, this book – had (since purchasing it some months ago) the highest rating on my Goodreads to-read shelf. It just seems like it should be such a puff piece. Like it should be the sort of thing you blow through for the guilty pleasure of it and then you put it down and forget about it, except maybe “oh this scene” or something like that.
I was certainly not expecting one of the most terrifying books I’ve ever read. One of the most searing examinations of the human psyche, too. Because that’s the great thing about zombies. That’s why we read about zombies (I’m in the process of writing a short essay about this very subject but as a teaser…): we read about zombies because no other dark creation of our imagination allows us to confront the issues of modern society so very plainly and clearly. Overpopulation, homelessness, poverty, the frailty of the human body, the rapid advancement of infectious diseases, our very plainly inadequate global infrastructure, what happens after we die – even getting really socio-political and thinking about (from an American perspective) the roiling human masses living in China. Zombies are humans-after. They are everything we’re scared of in a very rational way, even if their presentation is not rational. But do you see how the zombie menace is so much scarier than vampires or werewolves or ghouls or goblins or UFOs or anything else we can dream up? Zombies are us, stripped of everything that makes us who we are.
The book does not have the scares you’d expect from a ‘zombie novel’ – there are no moments of people “walking down darkened corridors with heart-pulsing intensity, coming up on a door as…!” Instead, the scares come from the way Brooks turns our modern age into a shell of its former self. The way he so simply and methodically destroys society. It’s terrifying because you see, in every choice he makes, potential reality. Okay, yes, zombies would have to be a reality first – and that’s, I know, probably unlikely. But substitute zombies for… something else. Some other pandemic. Humanity’s incompetence doesn’t seem so far-fetched now, does it?
Like most oral histories, there’s a bit of forced-flow. We start at the beginning and talk to people and then we move linearly forward… which is how most novels and stories work, so why is it that oral histories often feel so tedious? Even this one, which was fiction and so could cut out the boring repetition, still felt a bit long in the tooth. Perhaps it was just the nature of the format: there’s a propensity to pad, to give that ‘authentic human touch’ to every interview. What’s fascinating to realize is that Brooks made up all of these interviews – and proves he’s an excellent writer in different voices. Sure, many of them are broadly drawn caricatures – the army man, the hippie, the reluctant soldier, the scared regular guy, the kind of crazy dude – but there are too many characters and barely any repeated voices. That’s pretty impressive, especially when you’re keeping to a specific tone, trying to keep things seeming as real as possible.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. This book kept me up at night. It appealed straight to my worrying side – and allowed me to viscerally fear while allowing me to pretend I was only fearing a zombie war that really probably couldn’t ever happen. And yet… there’s something inconclusive about it. Perhaps because it is such an encompassing look at something that hasn’t happened. You know, in the way that Orson’s War of the Worlds must have felt like a bit (just a bit) of a letdown because it caused so much panic… and yet wasn’t real. You got caught up in, got so worried, found yourself believing it – and then the rug was pulled out, because the rug was never even there in the first place. It was fiction the whole time… and for some reason, in this instance, that’s a little disappointing. It just slightly reduces the power of the book. (for the record: I’m not saying I want a zombie apocalypse.)