You may remember author Max Brooks (son of famous comedian Mel Brooks, by the way) as the author of another book called The Complete Zombie Survival Guide. I once called that book as “non fiction set in a world where zombies exist.” Brooks described in excruciating detail and complete seriousness all kinds of tips for surviving an assault by an army of the living dead. In the sequel, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Wars, Brooks takes it a bit further and gives us a documentary-style retelling of a zombie outbreak that nearly wiped out the human race.
World War Z’s hook is also it’s greatest weakness. Instead of a structured narrative about the zombie wars involving a cast of normal characters in the literary sense, Brooks peppers the reader with one short vignette after another, all of them with different survivors ostensibly being interviewed by the author for the book. The characters all describe their role in the war, ranging from refugee to war profiteer to military general to post-war bureaucrat.
In a way, this is the book’s greatest strength. Brooks has obviously thought this whole zombie thing way through, and his imagination shines in the variety of situations the vignettes describe. Here’s just a short sample:
- A suburban housewife ignores the threat, clinging to her ideal middle class life until zombies come crashing through her sliding glass doors
- Panicked drivers clog up a freeway so that most can’t even open the car doors, and are then trapped in their automobiles by a wave of living dead
- An overconfident military fails to plug the outpouring of millions of zombies from New York City when they rely on weapons and tactics that turn out to be ineffective against this new kind of enemy
- After giving up on everything east of the Rocky Mountains and establishing a safe zone in what’s left of the West, a government official creates a jobs retraining program where lawyers, middle managers, film directors, and others with now worthless skills learn how to be carpenters, gunsmiths, and chimney sweeps.
I could go on, but you get it. Each of these scenarios could easily be expanded into a short story or even a short novel, but Brooks eschews that in favor of just jumping to the punchline and giving you all the good parts at once.
At the same time, though, this approach also eliminates a lot of things that are kind of necessary for good drama. There are no character arcs, since we only stick with a character for five to ten pages and then never see him/her again. All the people telling their stories obviously survived, so there’s no tension over whether or not they’ll make it. There’s no real plot or overarching story beyond what you, the reader, can piece together from the disjointed vignettes.
I think a better author could have taken the best of the book and created an epic story that cuts back and forth between several storylines, possibly weaving them together by the end of the book. A lot of the same ground could have been covered, but with a more unified structure.
Still, the rapid fire burst of vignettes does expose us to a lot of imaginative stuff, and it has its charms. If you’re a fan of the walking dead, you’ll probably be entertained.