Columns > Published on October 26th, 2012

Your Favorite Book Sucks: 'World War Z - An Oral History of the Zombie War'

'Your Favorite Book Sucks' is an ongoing column, written by different people, that takes a classic or popular book and argues why it isn't really all that great. Confrontational, to be sure, but it's all in good fun, so please play nice.

This Won’t Be A Popular Opinion.

I don’t like World War Z.

I’ve actually never found anyone who agrees with me on this one, and of course I had to consider the possibility that I’m the problem here. But I’ve read the book twice now, just to make sure, and I’ve never believed that being an opinion outlier automatically indicates fallacy.

I want to like it. I love horror; I love history. I adore painstaking research and unconventional approaches to conventional genres. I cherish thoughtfully considered sociopolitical commentary deeply ingrained in my novels.  

But I simply cannot like this book.

Oh, I Get It.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I admire World War Z. I understand what Max Brooks is trying to do. And I can certainly understand why all of you love it so much.

It’s very smart. Brooks takes a The Good War approach to the long cashed out brand of zombies, giving a fictional oral history that reads as fact. He embraces that unspoken conceit, that in order to truly frighten readers, a writer must create a convincing reality, fiction that is more real than real.

World War Z is meticulously researched, thoughtfully conceived, unerringly practical. Brooks uses historical examples as templates for how each country will respond to the global threat. He criticizes American bureaucracy and isolationism, Middle Eastern bull-headedness, Chinese secrecy. He preys on our fears of the unknown, the unstoppable. He makes a zombie threat tangible, comprehensive, substantial. He charts a plausible geopolitical, cultural and physical outcome to such a global catastrophe. Max Brooks worked at this book. I dig that.

And Yet.

I cannot dig the result. World War Z, for all of its lively synopsis, feels like work. Somewhere along the way, as Brooks researched and conceived and plotted and theorized, he lost sight of something significant: entertainment value.

Don’t get me wrong. I would never argue that a novel has to be fun to be worthy. I love serious novels. Long, slow-moving, deliberate, dense novels don’t frighten me a bit. But the work that goes into those books should be imperceptible. World War Z reads as a chore, a checklist of points that Brooks wanted to make, a laundry list of ideas he wanted to express from his research with no cohesive emotion running through them.

So when I say World War Z is dry, I don’t mean that it’s slow. I don’t mean intellectually impenetrable. I mean World War Z is lacking in the one aspect I believe every novel needs: heart.

The characters are mouthpieces for Brooks’ own ideas, and therefore interchangeable. They’re all Max Brooks – a remarkable thing, as Max Brooks is already his own character in the novel.  Sure, some of the voices are different, but the emotions, the motives, the belief systems are the same. They’re his.

Ugh, “The Good-Byes” Section.

I suppose this part is meant to be the heart of the novel, as the characters introduced earlier in the narrative return to give their impressions years after the conflict has somewhat subsided. Maybe it’s only because I’d already checked out by the time I reached this portion of the book, but it reads as flat and inauthentic to me. I mean, get a load of this:

I wonder what future generations will say about us. My grandparents suffered through the Depression, World War II, then came home to build the greatest middle class in human history. Lord knows they weren’t perfect, but they sure came closest to the American dream. Then my parents’ generation came along and fucked it all up – the baby boomers, the “me” generation. And then you got us .Yeah, we stopped the zombie menace, but we’re the ones who let it become a menace in the first place. At least we’re cleaning up our own mess, and maybe that’s the best epitaph to hope for.

I just don’t buy that a person would ever say that! The problem with a fictional oral history is that every word must read as convincing dialogue. Sometimes Brooks nails it, but at the points where he’s trying to tick off one item on his Big Idea Checklist – and that’s most of the book – the dialogue reads as wildly questionable.

And are there really any striking distinguishable characteristics between these narrators? I could scarcely remember what they were referring to as they re-address their stories from earlier in the book. That’s a problem. Sure, maybe the problem’s with me, but I usually think of myself as a pretty careful reader. These characters just aren’t memorable. They’re flat.

And Of Course There’s This Other Problem.

I saved this complaint for last, because its deficiency is secondary to the emotional bankruptcy and workhorse application of the book. I also saved it for last because if I started with this, readers would stone me in the comments section as someone who can only be trusted to enjoy a snappy, superficial thriller I picked up in an airport.

But it must be said: World War Z’s episodic format doesn’t allow for any narrative momentum. Every time I almost became engrossed in a scenario, every time a character almost began to show dimension and substance, I was ushered into a new story, a new character. Of course, that’s how oral histories work, but because these people aren’t real, more effort is necessary to make them feel important and memorable. You don’t have to do that with real people – they are distinguishable and substantial simply by existing. So in theory, a fictional oral history sounds great, but it’s simply not as effective as an actual oral history.

And finally – okay. Sure. Above I said that a novel doesn’t need to be fun to be worthy, and I believe that. But shouldn’t a novel about zombies at least be fun? World War Z is smart. It’s thoughtful, academic and original. But it’s not fun, and I won’t apologize for wanting my zombie book to be fun.

Okay, go ahead. Ream me in the comments. I’m ready for you! And if there are any people out there who agree with me, please speak up! It’s lonely over here.

About the author

Meredith is a writer, editor and brewpub owner living in Houston, Texas. Her four most commonly used words are, "The book was better."

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