Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The End of the World, Again: World War Z

It seems like Zombie books, movies, graphic novels have become for our times what UFOs were for the 1950s.  I have read various theories about this rise in popularity.  In our age, threats are far more subtle than a Soviet invasion: the shadowy world of Al-Qaeda, the threat of a pandemic, all these are reflected in stories of the undead.  They are the threat we don’t see until it is too late.  They are our extinction event.

There may be other phenomenon at work.  Anxiety of overpopulation, xenophobia and mistrust of immigrants, as well as the old fashioned fear of death.  Death can be a concrete event, or an abstract fear.  In a blunt way, zombies are one instrument in trying to understand the uncertain boundary between life and death.

This brings us to World War Z, Max Brooks novel of  zombie apocalypse.  In such an overworked genre, it is hard to believe that anything new or exciting could be done.  But Brooks provides and interesting and compelling account.  Part of the trick is his deft use of the oral history format, perfected by Studs Turkel. 
Brooks is very good at throwing on the guise of different voices, placing us in the experience of people retelling a history that never happened.   He never allows the fantasy of the zombie apocalypse to eclipse the very human drama of people trying to survive, and then to rebuild their world.

Brook has done some good work here, combining genre elements we expect and deserve in a zombie story, with some excellent storytelling and insights of what it is to be human.

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