By November 4, 2006

World War Z claims a victim in 44 pages

I can’t do it. As much as I want to finish reading (or start, really) Max Brooks’ World War Z, An Oral History of the Zombie War, I can’t crack fifty pages. WWZ is a far cry from Brooks’ other zombie work, the Zombie Survival Manual, published almost three years before. What worked so brilliantly for the Survival Guide is why World War Z failed to grab my attention.

WWZ is a loose collection of stories chronicled by a reporter after the end of a zombie uprising. Most passages are uninterrupted narratives, with others being interspersed with questions from the author. This literary device is the book’s biggest downfall. With “interviews” lasting fewer than a dozen pages, it’s very hard to get attached to any of the characters. I guess it’s the roleplayer in me, but I just expected more of a story, and less of a summary. If I am to read a book about the experiences of many characters, I want more than a snapshot.

I was afraid of this. I glossed over much of the Zombie Survival Manual’s latter parts, a collection of “historic” outbreaks, because I found Brooks’ style emotionless. This was an advantage in the first half. As with all socially conscious science fiction, the ZSM used an absurd foil to discuss real social issues. The tongue-in-cheek tone was a great approach for discussing man’s inability to plan in advance for disaster or properly survive after being separated from his air-conditioned, fully foodstocked home. Brooks’ caution about turning a high rise fortress into a very tall prison worked because he read very dry. It’s hard to tell an impassioned narrative with that voice, however. Furthermore, Brooks’ super-short story style worked well with the how-to format of the survival manual. Unfortunately, it made for choppy pacing and slim character development with WWZ.

Similar to the ZSG, World War Z has lots of inventive takes on the zombie genre. I liked some the backstories quite a bit, particularly the black market body parts dealer who puts an infected heart into a wealthy patient. I doubt that’s ever been done before, and certainly gave me an idea for my online zombie campaign. The way each story led into each other was also interesting, but not enough to hold my attention.

Brooks’ ideas would have been better fleshed out with a longer treatment of fewer stories. I’m not saying he has to write a full novel about a Israeli-hating Palestinian who finds refuge among his enemies; maybe sixty pages instead of eight. I can start to see the mostly-disconnected threads of the book coming together to demonstrate how a huge, worldwide outbreak could have occurred; I just don’t know if I can make it long enough to see everything tie together. I hate to ding someone for going outside of the novel-format norm, but the interview format coupled with Brooks’ fact-finding reporter style makes World War Z dead on arrival.

Or is it? It would be appropriate for a book on zombies to rise from the bookshelf for a second chance. Unless someone else will give it a nod, however, I’m moving on to another book.

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6 Comments on "World War Z claims a victim in 44 pages"

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  1. Ed says:

    I was worried you would find it that way, is a pretty heavy weakness in the style he chose to write (which in my view is the lazy way to write). I recommend skimming the first paragraph of each story. There are several ofthe later stories that you will really like.

  2. Chris says:

    I found WWZ to be the best book of the zombie genre i’ve read yet, and I’ve read dozens of ’em.

    What it has that most series don’t is an actual storyline. It’s not readily apparant at first, but each interview takes place a little further on, and the overall story is advanced from dozens of widely different perspectives, from opportunitst and black market types, to political leaders and militant types, and so so many in between.

    I really enjoyed this book, simply because it’s the first to cover a zombie apocolypse from beginning, during, and…well, end. It doesn’t go into excruciatingly tedious detail about how a handful of survivors managed take 4 damn books just to find a hideout (*coughautumncough*) (I’m sorry, but I really do want those hours of my life back).

    You can’t get attached to the characters like with other styles of writing, but he still manages to bring every interviewee, and their unique perspective of the events as they unfolded, to life.

    Different people, different taste, perhaps, but the book is of superb quality, so I doubt you’ll regret finishing it.

  3. Stomper says:

    So you’re saying he should follow the rule of subtract your age from 100 and that’s the number of pages of a book you should read before you decide whether you’re going to finish it……Hmmmmm and unless Doc has run through many birthdays in the last couple years he has quite a few more pages to go before he should give up!!

  4. I haven’t heard of that subtraction rule before, but I kind of like it. When considering giving up a book, though, sometimes I’ll just skip ahead a few chapters to see if it gets any better.

  5. I was given this as a present for Christmas, and ended up liking it, overall. I’d be interested to hear it as an audiobook or see it as a “documentary”, because I think those approaches would help with one of the issues of the book (lots of narration switches — hearing voices or, even better, seeing people recount their stories would help me pick back up narrative threads more quickly). Best of all would be a DVD where one could choose to follow one person at a time or follow the stories in chronological order, as given in the book. I’ve read that there is an audio book with a good cast, though I haven’t heard it.

    At least in this book, unlike some “literary” fiction I’ve read recently, I felt that the narrative switches served a purpose, to stitch together a larger story (sometimes by inference, and sometimes by direct connections between stories). Some of the later stories, where military units and others are pulling together and making a difference (not just running or filing reports to bureaucrats) were very moving to me, because they reminded me of real people who have pulled together, whether in bursts of heroism or quieter steady work.

  6. zaphod says:

    It does make a good audio book. My GF and I listened to it on a long road trip. Gotta say, the Israelis SO have it together as far as containing an outbreak.