May 26, 2009

The Best of CCLaP: "World War Z," by Max Brooks

(This week I am finally reading Neal Stephenson's massive new novel Anathem [which I can tell already is going to be one of the best books of 2009]; but it's going to take me the entire week to actually finish the thousand-page doorstop, which means I won't be getting any other books read or new reviews written until then. Instead, this week I'm presenting a series of reprinted reviews from when CCLaP first opened; they are still books well worth your time, but that new readers may have never had a chance to come across here before. Don't forget, you can always check out CCLaP's main book page for a list of all 240 titles that have now been reviewed here in the last two years.)

World War Z, by Max Brooks
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
By Max Brooks
Crown/Random House / ISBN: 978-0-307-34660-5

Anytime I hear of some funny, gimmicky book suddenly becoming popular among the hipster set, I always squint my eyes and brace myself for the worst; because usually when it comes to such books, the worst is all you can expect to find, an endless series of fluffy pop-culture pieces designed specifically for crafty point-of-purchase display at your favorite corporate superstore, and then a year later to be forgotten by society altogether. And so it's been in the last six months as I've heard more and more about this book World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which supposedly is a hilarious "actual" oral history about an apocalyptic war with the undead that supposedly almost wiped out the human race as we know it; even worse, that it had been inspired by an actual gimmicky point-of-purchase humor book, the dreadful Zombie Survival Guide from a few years ago which had been published specifically and only to make a quick buck off the "overly specific survival guide" craze of the early 2000s. And even worse than all this, the author of both is Max Brooks, as in the son of comedy legend Mel Brooks; and if the son of a comedy legend is trawling the literary gutters of gimmicky point-of-purchase humor books, the chances usually are likely that they have nothing of particular interest to say.

So what a surprise, then, to read the book myself this month, and realize that it's not a gimmicky throwaway humor book at all, but rather a serious and astute look at the next 50 years of global politics, using a zombie outbreak as a metaphorical stand-in for any of the pervasive challenges facing us as an international culture these days (terrorism, global warming, disease, natural disasters), showing with the precision of a policy analyst just how profoundly the old way of doing things is set to fail in the near future when some of these challenges finally become crises. It is in fact an astoundingly intelligent book, as "real" as any essay by Seth Godin or Malcolm Gladwell, basically imagining the debacle of New Orleans multiplied by a million, then imagining what would happen if the Bushists were to react to such a thing in the same way; and even more astounding, Brooks posits that maybe the real key to these future challenges lies with the citizens of third-world countries, in that they are open to greater and faster adaptability than any fat, lazy, middle-class American or European ever could be. Oh yeah, and it's got face-eating zombies too. Did I mention the face-eating zombies?

Because that's the thing to always remember, that this comes from an author who has spent nearly his entire life in the world of comedy and gimmicky projects, not only from family connections but also his own job as a staff writer at Saturday Night Live from 2001 to '03; that no matter how smart World War Z gets (and it gets awfully smart at points), it is still ultimately a fake oral history of an apocalyptic zombie war that supposedly takes place just five or ten years from now, starting as these messes often do as a series of isolated outbreaks in remote third-world villages. And in fact this is where Brooks first starts getting his political digs in, right from the first page of the manuscript itself, by using the initial spread of the zombie virus to comment on the way such past epidemics like HIV have been dealt with by the corrupt old white males who used to be in charge of things; basically, by ignoring the issue as long as it wasn't affecting fellow white males, then only paying attention after it's become an unstoppable epidemic. In Brooks' world, just like the real one of pre-9/11 intelligence-gathering, we see that a few government smarties from around the world really were able to catch the implications of this mysterious new virus while it was still theoretically controllable; just that their memos and papers went ignored for political reasons by those actually in charge, as well as getting lost in the vast bureaucratic shuffle that the Cold War has created in the Western military-industrial complex.

That's probably the most pleasurable part of the first half, to tell you the truth, and by "pleasurable" I mean "witty and humorous in a bleak, horrifying, schauenfreude kind of way" -- of watching the virus become more and more of a threat, of watching entire cities start to go under because of the zombie epidemic, then watching Brooks paint an extremely thinly-veiled portrait of how the Bush administration would deal with such a situation, and by extension any government ruled by a small cabal of backwards, power-hungry religious fundamentalists. And in this, then, World War Z suddenly shifts from a critique about AIDS to a critique about Iraq, showing how in both situations (the Middle East and zombies, that is) the real priority of the people currently in charge is to justify all the trillions of dollars spent at traditional weapon manufacturing companies under the old Cold-War system (companies, by the way, where all the people in charge have lucrative executive jobs when they're not being the people in charge), leading to such ridiculous situations as a full-on tank and aircraft charge mostly for the benefit of the lapdog press outlets who are there covering the "first grand assault." In Iraq, unfortunately, we found that a billion dollars in tanks still can't stop a teenage girl with a bomb strapped to her chest; and metaphorically that might be the most chilling scene in the entirety of World War Z as well, the press-friendly "zombie response" set up by the Bush-led government in New York's Yonkers neighborhood, done not for good strategic reasons but rather to show off the billions of dollars in weapons the government had recently acquired, leading to a virtual slaughter of all the soldiers and journalists there by the chaotic zombie hoard that eventually arrives.

This, then, gets us into the first futuristic posit of Brooks in the novel to not have actually happened in real life yet -- the "Great Panic," that is, when the vast majority of humans suddenly lose faith in whatever government was formerly running their section of the world, and where mass anarchy and chaos leads to the accidental and human-on-human deaths of several hundreds of millions of more people. And again, by detailing a fictional tragedy like a global zombie epidemic, and the complete failure of a Bush-type administration to adequately respond to it, Brooks is eerily predicting here such real situations like last week's complete meltdown of Bear Stearns (the fifth largest investment bank in the entire United States), leading many to start wondering for the first time what exactly would happen if the US dollar itself was to experience the same kind of whirlwind collapse, a collapse that happens so fast (in a single business day in the case of Bear Stearns) that no one in the endless red tape of the government itself has time to actually respond to it?

Brooks' answer here is roughly the same one Cormac McCarthy proposed in last year's Pulitzer-winning The Road; chaos, bloodshed, violence, inhumanity, an everyone-for-themselves mentality from the very people we trusted to lead us in such times of crisis. Make no mistake, this is a damning and devastating critique of the corrupt conservatives currently in charge of things; a book that uses the detritus of popular culture to masquerade as a funny and gross book about zombies, but like the best fantastical literature in history is in fact a prescient look at our current society. It's unbelievable, in fact, how entertaining and engrossing this novel is throughout its middle, given how this is usually the part of any book that is the slowest and least interesting; here Brooks uses the naturally slow middle of his own story to make the majority of his political points, and to get into a really wonky side of global politics that is sure to satisfy all you hardcore policy junkies (as well as military fetishists).

Because that's the final thing important to understand about World War Z, is that it's a novel with a truly global scope; Brooks here takes on not only what such a zombie epidemic would do to our familiar US of A, but also how such an epidemic would spread in the village-centric rural areas of southeast Asia, the infrastructure-poor wastelands of Russia and more, and especially how each society fights the epidemic in slightly different ways, some with more success than others. For example, Brooks posits that in such places as India, population density is just too high to do much of any good; in his fictional world history, such countries are basically decimated by such a catastrophe, with there basically being few humans even left in India by the time everything is over. Other countries, though, used to picking up as a nation and fleeing for other lands, survive the zombie outbreaks quite well; those who are already used to being refugees, for example, see not too much of a difference in their usual lifestyle from this latest turn in events, ironically making them the societies most suited for survival in such a world. (This is opposed to all the clueless middle-class Americans in the novel, for example, who in a panic make for the wilds of northern Canada, in the blind hope that the winter weather will freeze the zombies into non-action; ironically, although that turns out to be true, poor planning unfortunately results in the deaths of tens of millions of people anyway, from hypothermia and starvation and plain ol' mass-murder.)

And this is ultimately what I mean by this book being such a politically astute one; because as the world finally starts gathering some semblance of its former self in a post-zombie environment, and starts working in an organized way to actually get the epidemic under control, Brooks uses the situation to show how such a thing would be just the ticket for fundamentally shifting world domination and power back to the eastern side of the planet for awhile, and away from the Americans and Western Europeans who have mostly had it for the last half-century. And in this, Brooks is merely reflecting real events these days, showing the logical outcome of a planet where in more and more cases, such places as China, the Middle East and Southeast Asia are becoming more and more important voices in world affairs. The world is already sliding in this direction anyway, Brooks posits, and all it'd take is one really big disaster to make that change happen fast; again, it's hard to see events like last week's meltdown of Bear Stearns and not think of Brooks' catalyst-producing zombie hoards.

This is such a terrific book, I don't even know where to start; a novel that is sure to profoundly please not only lovers of speculative histories, but also political analysts, those interested in exploring the idea of southeast Asia as a world superpower, and last but not least those who love gore-filled zombie horror stories. What a wonderful, wonderful surprise this was, at a time when I was expecting not much more than The Dangerous Book for Boys, All Zombie Edition; it's a book I wholeheartedly recommend to all of you without delay, a book that deserves all the recognition it's now received and more.

Out of 10: 9.9

Read even more about World War Z: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:00 AM, May 26, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |