I imagine a lot of people are going to be reading zombie books during this COVID-19 crisis. Just like the Contagion film has seen a spike in popularity, so too, I feel, will many zombie stories. I can’t blame people for turning to fiction during this time of crisis; it can be cathartic to view a disaster movie in a time of disaster. But that’s not why I finally picked up World War Z. World War Z is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for years. It’s frequently touted as one of the best zombie novels. I read an early screenplay for the film – back when it still tried to adhere to the book’s structure – and loved that, but I just never got around to reading the book. And then I heard that the novel’s author, Max Brooks, was publishing a new novel this year – Devolution – and I thought now was the time to finally give World War Z a read. At the end of the day, I totally see why World War Z is as beloved as it is. It’s a really unique take on the zombie genre, combining it with a traditional oral history of a real-world war is a stroke of genius. But I don’t know that I loved this book. It’s good, but the hype might have killed it for me. (Mild spoilers may follow.)
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
We survived the zombie apocalypse, but how many of us are still haunted by that terrible time? We have (temporarily?) defeated the living dead, but at what cost? Told in the haunting and riveting voices of the men and women who witnessed the horror firsthand, World War Z is the only record of the pandemic.
The Zombie War came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Max Brooks, driven by the urgency of preserving the acid-etched first-hand experiences of the survivors, traveled across the United States of America and throughout the world, from decimated cities that once teemed with upwards of thirty million souls to the most remote and inhospitable areas of the planet. He recorded the testimony of men, women, and sometimes children who came face-to-face with the living, or at least the undead, hell of that dreadful time. World War Z is the result. Never before have we had access to a document that so powerfully conveys the depth of fear and horror, and also the ineradicable spirit of resistance, that gripped human society through the plague years.
There’s a lot about World War Z to love. It’s filled to the brim with authenticity. The world-building feels authentic. Each of the interviews feels authentic. Even the structure of the novel feels authentic. Everything feels authentic to what an oral history should be. And all of it is very well-written. It’s surprising and engaging. Sometimes it’s emotional and scary. It adheres to the structure of an oral history very well, bouncing around from person to person in a mostly logical fashion (though, more on that shortly). Brooks ensures that all of the characters feel as though they’ve gone through this conflict; every time someone is interviewed, it’s apparent that they’ve suffered something and that feels really authentic to this kind of story. The novel’s themes are also explored remarkably well and it frequently emphasizes the idea that humanity has to come together in order to overcome an obstacle as severe as a zombie plague – instead of falling into the trap that captures most zombie media: the over-importance of the individual over the group. There’s a lot to like about World War Z and it definitely ranks among the better zombie novels.
Then why didn’t I adore this novel? Well, there are a few reasons. The first: oral histories are not known for being the most exciting reads. While I think it’s a good thing that World War Z adhered to the structure of an oral history book as closely as it did, doing so does make the book a bit less exciting than it otherwise might’ve been. All but the best-crafted oral histories are pretty much devoid of tension because you already know these people made it through the event. And without that tension, it does often read as more of a dry history book than a compelling work of fiction. Which, to be fair, might have been what Brooks was going for. But it definitely isn’t the most exciting read. The first part of the novel takes forever to get going as several people are interviewed at the very beginning of the outbreak, but they don’t really have any interesting or useful insight to shed on it and it just reads as a pretty generic opener to a zombie plague. Which is fine, but it’s not the easiest to get through. That said, once the second part of the book kicks in, it does pick up some.
Additionally, while I think the book is mostly structured well, it can be hard to follow why a certain person is being interviewed at the time they’re being interviewed. The book mostly organizes the interviews based on what part of the conflict the bulk of that interview represents, but there’s a lot of overlap in those time periods and many of the interviews don’t quite seem to flow together. It just often feels a bit jumbled together. And, like I said, they may be kind of accurate to real oral histories, but it doesn’t always make for the most compelling read. Once you get used to Brooks’s style, it does become easier to jive with the book’s structure, but it can take a while to get used to that structure and the book almost completely lost me several times during that period before I finally started vibing with it. Once I did, though, I started enjoying it a lot more, even with these structural flaws.
The second and most problematic reason is that the characters lack any discerning voice. While all of the characters certainly feel as though they’ve lived through this zombie war, all of them are written in a very similar voice. The novel is a true globe-trotter, bouncing back and forth between a vast array of countries. But all of the characters sound the same. Nearly all of them use similar vocabulary and similar grammar. I understand that you might not want to imitate certain dialects for fear of inadvertently writing a stereotype instead of a real character, but I think it does just as much of a disservice by writing everyone in the same voice. I couldn’t tell you which plot point was said by which character because all of the characters read exactly the same as each other and that’s a major problem when trying to write an oral history that is remotely interesting to read. When none of the characters sound distinct from one another, it’s a lot harder to care about any of them as they all coalesce into a gelatinous “interviewee.”
Now, the audiobook largely fixes this problem by simply casting actors from the regions each of their characters are supposed to be representing, but that doesn’t excuse the writing. Just because a good actor can make subpar writing sound good doesn’t mean the subpar writing shouldn’t be pointed out. I didn’t read this book alongside the audiobook – I merely occasionally played an interview alongside the book – so the experience I had was that every interview had a sameness to it and it made for a monotonous read at times. It’s clear that Brooks did a lot of research, but it might have benefited him to really study how different people talk. There’s a way to write dialects and true-to-life dialogue from different cultures without veering into the realm of stereotype, but it doesn’t feel like an effort was even made here and that’s a disappointment and a definite detractor from the overall reading experience.
All of that said, I did still enjoy World War Z quite a bit. The positives greatly outweighed the negatives but those negatives did turn what should’ve been a home run for me into something that was merely enjoyable. I understand why World War Z has gotten so much love over the years, though. When the book works, it really works. And, at the time, there was nothing like this. I have a big soft spot for fiction that imitates nonfiction. I love dramatic fake-documentaries that cover a sci-fi/fantasy topic as seriously as a real documentary would cover its topic. World War Z is exactly that kind of novel. There’s no tongue-in-cheek aspect to this novel. It’s an oral history about a zombie plague that’s executed in a way that’s every bit as serious as an oral history about World War II might be executed. And, for that reason, it’s a really enjoyable read. But its lack of character distinction and occasional odd structural choice don’t always make for the easiest or most exciting read. And, in that respect, it’s a bit disappointing. I’m glad I finally read the book and I did enjoy it, but I don’t think it’s one I’ll be returning to.
3.5 out of 5 wands.