Reflections on Horror Literature: World War Z

Reading World War Z, by Max Brooks, comes at an interesting time for me. I’m taking a course in qualitative research and learning how to conduct interviews for projects much like what the fictional interviewer does in this novel. I almost hesitate to call it that—a novel implies the work has a plot, even an episodic one, running through it, and WWZ does not. Still, it has much in common with composite novels (novels with short stories tied loosely together by common characters and setting), particularly Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a work about a real war (Vietnam). Though O’Brien’s book isn’t told in the form of interviews, it still has thematic and structural commonalities with what Brooks has done.

But to go back to my qualitative research, what World War Z has done is to fictionalize something like a series of testimonies, and on that front the book is extremely powerful. We learn of the war the same way citizens living long after its destruction would, through the voices of the people who lived it. Amazing stuff, almost as affecting as reading real testimonies of victims of war or genocide (which I have done as part of this other class). Some subjects’ interviews moved me to tears, others bored me, but the effect of the entire book is to feel as if the reader has been through this war through the lived experiences of people from many countries and cultures. The diversity of the book’s cast is to be commended as well; it’s refreshing to see both western and non-western perspectives on a zombie apocalypse, as so much zombie fiction we’re exposed to as American audiences focuses solely on the American experience. (I feel in particular this is what is lacking in The Walking Dead—there isn’t even any evidence of military control or news broadcasting anywhere, which seems sorely unrealistic given the smaller scope of that universe’s zombie outbreak.)

This non-western inclusion is what brings me to highlight what I feel is the actual monster of World War Z: not zombies (a.k.a. “Zacks” and a host of other colorful nicknames speaking to the tendencies of soldiers to give enemy combatants pithy labels), not humans or humanity broadly, and not necessarily even war itself, although it certainly portrays it with realistic gravitas and unpleasantness. The monster in World War Z is something subtle but present and, frighteningly, something all too real in the non-fictional world: political and cultural divisiveness.

Political divisiveness is everywhere throughout the book. Nations have trouble coming to consensus about how to tackle the threat, regimes rise and fall within nations, and individuals fight each other without logical reason to. The story of Australian astronaut Terry Knox, in the chapter “Around the World, and Above,” demonstrates this very well. Had his space station been able to confer and connect with the Chinese station, more of both groups might have survived. But political differences created a very different outcome.

We’d been trying to contact them for months. We weren’t even sure if there was a crew. All we got was a recorded message in perfect Hong Kong English to keep our distance lest we invite a response of “deadly force.” What an insane waste! We could have worked together, traded supplies, technical expertise. Who knows what we could have accomplished if we had only chucked the politics and come together as human bloody beings. (235)

I find it interesting that the British English profanity “bloody” can be interpreted quite literally in this passage. At essence, all the living humans on Earth have one thing in common that isn’t true of the zombies—they all still bleed red blood, and that unifying fact seems like it ought to be enough to keep the human infighting to a minimum. Unfortunately, it’s not sufficient.

In the interview with Ernesto Olguin, who had been a Chilean delegate to the UN, Olguin describes how talks between nations got ugly.

One of the delegates from a pre-war “developing” country suggested, rather hotly, that maybe [the outbreak] was their [the “First World”] punishment for raping and pillaging “the victim nations of the south.” Maybe, he said, by keeping the “white hegemony” distracted with their own problems, the undead invasion might allow the rest of the world to develop “without imperialist intervention.” (239)

War itself isn’t really the problem, it’s the symptom and the tool used to beat one another up. As General D’Ambrosia tells the interviewer, this isn’t a new problem, just a new enemy, and that “[t]he book of war” is one “we’ve been writing since one ape slapped another.” (242)

It’s humanity’s tendency to fail to understand one another, and though this problem is ubiquitous its consequences are borne out in situation after situation depicted in the book wherein lack of empathy exacerbates the warfare. Disabled warriors aren’t given their due by their ableist peers. Some humans go insane and begin to believe they’re zombies, which leads to debates and abuse of power. And nation after nation fails to unite to fight a common enemy until it’s too late. Nukes are set off. Fires rage across continents. And what’s left behind is a ravaged Earth bearing little resemblance to its pre-war self.

While World War Z is the grimmest book I’ve read this term, it does fill me with something like hope to know that authors like Brooks are at least using creative means to point out real problems. Still, I think if the zombie apocalypse were on us today, we would all be hard-pressed to behave much differently than this fictional world.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Reflections on Horror Literature: World War Z

  1. Margaret Ayala

    I didn’t even think of The Things They Carried while reading WWZ, and it’s one of my favorites! Shame on me. That’s a great comparison.

  2. I like your point about divisiveness, though I wouldn’t call it the true monster because I believe the less human something is, the more monsterous it is (I thought Zach was a good monster). But cultural and political divisiveness was certainly the enemy. Had the people of the world been able to defeat their divisiveness, Zach would have been a much easier beast to slay.

  3. It is kind of interesting how much more willing people are (people like me, at least) to read about the kinds of political and moral issues you describe when they are cast against a backdrop of zombie mayhem. I think one of the reasons I like this book so much is that it uses zombies for more than just quick scares – there’s a lot more going on here than just survival stories.

    • Oh, yes, I think authors can absolutely make their political, philosophical, or sociological theories more palatable by using the lens of genre fiction. Humans love a good story more than a lecture.

  4. I agree with Brian’s comment: if this book had just been about a war, I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to read it as much as I would when you throw an element of the unnatural into it. WWZ eerily illustrates what could easily happen to our world if this actually ever came to pass. Hopefully this remains just a fiction, and won’t turn into a prophecy in the future.

    • I think that’s why zombie fiction generally has been so popular in the last few years. We actually have collective anxiety about war, but writing about just “war” is a real downer.

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