I just finished one of the coolest books I’ve ever read. In fact, I rushed to read the last 40 pages on the train this morning (foregoing the extra hour of sleep I usually get on 7:55 to Grand Central) just so I could write a post about it today. Because I’ve been so excited about this book all week I couldn’t wait any longer to tell people about it.
And apparently I’m about five years behind the curve. Max Brooks’ WORLD WAR Z came out in 2006 to huge (and well-deserved) acclaim. For those of you who don’t know, the book is an oral history of the Zombie War. Yup, zombie war. Yes, oral history. As in Studs Terkel. The Terkel influence would be more than apparent in WORLD WAR Z even if Brooks didn’t list the famous historian on his acknowledgements page. For those of you who don’t know Studs Terkel, get to your nearest bookstore/library and get Hard Times (my personal favorite) like… right now. Don’t worry, you don’t need to read the whole thing.
WORLD WAR Z does for the (fictional, duh) Zombie War what Hard Times did for The Great Depression. The book was supposedly written approximately ten years after humankind’s victory in the decade-long Zombie War, which very nearly wiped us all out. Brooks has “collected interviews” from countless survivors from all walks of life and, just like a real oral history, through the sheer abundance and variability of the different accounts you get a highly detailed, 360 degree view of this (fictional) moment in history.
The cleverness of this book cannot be overestimated. There are well over a hundred different “accounts” and it is clear that Brooks has thought of literally every possible narrative that could exist in response to a zombie invasion. The book is broken into several parts. The first few cover the initial outbreaks and the ensuing Great Panic, next comes the defensive war in which human survivors must fortify themselves and hold off further attacks, then comes extensive coverage of the offensive war, in which humankind begins to reclaim their world from the zombies. The final section of the book, “Goodbyes,” returns to some previous interviewees to wrap up with final thoughts on the lasting effects. Some of my favorite subjects include a feral adolescent, stranded in the wilderness as a child during the war and now living in a rehabilitation center, a blind Japanese gardener that spent the entire war alone in the wilderness, communing with nature and protecting the wild spirits of the forest from zombie desecration, and a trainer/handler for K-9 units used to lure zombies to military attack points. Do you see what I mean? As I read I was constantly marveling at the depth and breadth of Brooks’ imagination. Your average piece of fiction contains one story, or maybe even a handful. There are literally hundreds in this book, all fully realized and impeccably detailed. And highly convincing, this book actually spooked me once or twice.
And once you get beyond the quirky cleverness of an oral history of the Zombie War, there is something truly profound at the center of WORLD WAR Z. Forget that there is no “Zombie War,” Brooks has created a stunningly accurate portrait of humanity, its beauty, its strength, its weaknesses and its shame. There are some really heartbreaking stories in here, some despairing and others moving. This book is more than smart, fun or funny. It made me really think about things like fear, loss, sacrifice, and courage. Pretty impressive for a fake history.
I picked this book up because I was struggling too much with Gravity’s Rainbow (I think I’m still a little too braindead from school to handle it, for now) and I needed something light and easy. Boy I had no idea what I was getting into. This book is amazing and, despite the occasional heaviness, a total breeze to read. Absolutely recommended.
WORLD WAR Z, Max Brooks (Crown, 2006)