Reading World War Z

In what is both a moment of procrastination (I don’t want to do homework) and an act of slight progress (I’m finally clearing out some of my blog drafts), I present an unpolished, never-quite-finished essay on the novel World War Z by Max Brooks. I started this thing almost a year ago, but don’t see myself working on it anymore. Might as well let you read it. Note that I have yet to watch the film adaptation, this is meant to be a reading of (specific parts of) the book.

World War Z is not a typical zombie story.  For one thing, the book is “written” in the aftermath of the conflict, and while some segments tell what happened during the zombie outbreak, there is a significant portion that deals with how humans were responding to the consequences of it all, after the war.  The book includes scenes of workers patrolling the arctic circle for thawing zombies and towns rebuilding after being cleared of the undead.  In addition, the novel is an effort to tell the story of the whole world rather than a region (like southern Georgia in The Walking Dead), a mall (Dawn of the Dead), or an individual (Robert Neville of I Am Legend).  It does this by framing itself as an oral history, a compendium of interviews conducted by a U.N. worker.

But oral history isn’t the same as history.  At its core, oral history isn’t so much the study of evidence but a study of memory.  World War Z isn’t a historiography of the zombie war so much as it is a glimpse at how survivors remembered the war.  Above all, since it is fictitiously compiled by an “author” (the U.N. worker) and also actually compiled by an author (Brooks), it is a collection of memories that Brooks thought best represented a history of his war – and a history of the world.  The story isn’t about the characters really (some interviewees reappear in the conclusion, but I had to go back to piece together who was who – there is little actual character development) so much as it is about the countries that deal with zombies and the notion of the global zombie war itself.

In an interview about the book, Brooks stated that “everything in World War Z (as in The Zombie Survival Guide) is based in reality… well, except the zombies. But seriously, everything else in the book is either taken from reality or 100% real.”  Adding zombies to reality, then, allowed Brooks to show what he thought of the world through its response to catastrophe, its governance, its resilience.  In another interview, Brooks called the book an effort to combat American isolationism and argued that he wanted to “break down the stereotypes Americans have about other cultures… and maybe give my fellow Americans a window into the political and cultural workings of other nations.”

But how did Brooks choose to represent the world?

Brooks’ decision to shed light on the outside world, if taken seriously as an attempt to enlighten us where our isolationism has sold us short, rests on the same old stereotypes and dangerous whitewashing that he proposes to combat.  A number of societies are portrayed in one or two short segments that are more about applying the zombie war to our preconceived notions than about opening a window to new cultures.  For example, the only two Japanese characters interviewed are a young, cyber-connected loner and an old, blind, traditional warrior.  North Korea is portrayed as an isolated and paranoid mystery.  South Africa’s role is framed solely by its apartheid history.  Iran takes the position of America’s greatest fear: the trigger-happy nuclear power.  The story’s structure doesn’t lend itself to much in terms of developing a more nuanced look at cultures or politics around the world, so this is your only glimpse at some societies.

Where foreign affairs don’t rely on stereotypes, they rest on a scary depiction of the “real world.”  The two countries that lead the world out of the zombie war are South Africa and Israel, two countries with infamous histories of dealing with actual hungry and helpless masses within their own borders.  Both countries have experienced decades of forced segregation that leave a significant part of the population isolated, oppressed, dying.  In portraying the world through the zombie war, it is implicit that these histories – of segregation, oppression, and degradation – are the reason that these countries manage to weather the storm of zombie infestation better than others. Continue reading

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