World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

The cover to World War Z, which has a weathered but contemporary look.

Wow. Where do I start? Max Brooks’ World War Z is freakin’ great. I enjoyed literally every page of this book. As I read, I dreaded reaching the end, not in fear of a particular outcome, but because it meant no more delicious zombie war goodness. What sets WWZ apart from most books I’ve read is the unadulterated pleasure I experienced while reading it. The telling is so varied, so deep, and so thorough in its concept (battling an all-out global zombie infestation), that I was compelled by every paragraph, and gripped by every testimonial. I believe Brooks has shown that his Zombie Survival Guide was more than just a toss-off coffee table book riding on the coattails of the Worst-Case Scenarios Survival Handbook, or the work of some Wikipedia-esque obsessive-compulsive, it was the genesis of WWZ.

Mild Spoilers alert: I reveal elements of the book in this post, but I try not to give away any of the specific plot points that aren’t obvious from the title alone. Anyway, the delivery of the novel is less about plot points and more about individual tales, so it’s easy to discuss elements of the over-arching plot without ruining the experience.

As implied in the subtitle, Brooks delivers his compelling and sweeping tale of global zombie outbreak and the ensuing events as a series of post-war testimonial interviews with a startlingly wide variety of survivors. Before the book was released (I have no idea where I heard of this book, but I immediately set my sights on it), I assumed it would have a regional focus, with testimonials from Americans or Brits only, with the broader experiences being hinted at, rather than addressed directly. This is a common technique, particularly in these post-apocalyptic tales. But Brooks is clearly no slouch when it comes to zombies. He has obviously given this a great deal of thought. In fact, if the zombies ever do come, I’m finding this man. It will be my raison d’âtre.

The thing that struck me most, once I was about 1/3 into the book, was how fully he embraced his premise: the testimonials from an extended UN fact-finding mission that were deemed “too personal” for a broad factual report, but that the interviewer deemed too important to be ignored. Avoiding a regionalized telling gives the book a vitality that could easily have been lost otherwise. The interviewees are from China, Russia, India, the Ukraine, Ireland, South Africa, Palestine, Israel, and other areas. Then, add to this mix of regions a variety of types of people: doctors, marines, citizens, aid workers, environmentalists, extremists, businessmen, citizens who join the military, sub commanders, and a myriad of others. The sheer variety is stunning, and Brooks embraces their differences both culturally and environmentally. While I can’t vouch for his authenticity, I can vouch for the impression of it and its effects on the book as a whole. The variety of people and cultures gives the book a global feel, ironically creating a unifying universality that emerges in spite of the local differentiations. The broader impacts become visible through the variations in their reactions. A little difficult to describe, but key to the novel’s success, this is what sets Brooks above others who tackle this sort of tale. This cultural variety is the texture that keeps the narrative compelling and helps it rise above pedantic Clancy-esqe weapon porn (or “war procedurals”, if you will) or a cookie-cutter zombie tale.

Occasionally, Brooks relies on some short story tropes that, had the stories themselves not been so well done, might have been eye-rolling. Most of these come up in the tales involving psychological trauma related to the extreme stresses involved in a world-enveloping plague of the walking dead. While I’m not qualified to say whether his concepts are realistic, they seemed almost too perfect, too ‘writerly’ (?) for me: people behaving like zombies (called “quislings”) and some other little devices that seemed a tad too Hollywood in their neatly-constructed psychology. But, again, Brooks is very skilled short story teller, and he hangs these little narratives upon the broader plot structure so well, and with such variety and distinction, that these moments feel more like indulgence by a skillful writer than a crutch for an unimaginative one. Brooks clearly has an entire global zombie war in his head, and I don’t doubt for a minute that he could’ve written a 640, rather than 340 page book, without breaking a sweat or running low on material.

The arc of the novel is chronological, tracking the outbreak from its early inklings in China, to the tipping point of humanity when the governments of the world realize just what must be sacrificed to survive as a whole, to a world that has turned and faced its new reality and is reborn as something stronger but tragically marked. The scope of the accounts widens as it goes, pulling back and widening its focus until military actions across the continental U.S. are discussed. The zombie war porn pops up occasionally throughout the book, but it’s in the last 1/3 that it hits with all pistons firing, giving the kind of account that could only come from the mouth of a grunt in the field (or a man who has given this more thought than anyone has). But what makes it work is that it’s a description not just of guns, munitions, and tactics, but of just how ill-equipped we are to deal with threats that are not known. There’s an aphorism about the military, that we’re always perfectly equipped for the last war. This is another key point in Brooks’ scenario for a global outbreak, and he works it so, so well.

The only thing that bugged me, besides some of the psychological conceits, were a few blunt commentaries on society that seemed to break with the subtlety and realism of the telling. Brooks is clearly no fan of certain things: the current U.S. administration, SUVs, commercialism, suburbanization, and other little political and social things. Every so often he takes an opportunity to give them a jab. While most of the time, I think it fits perfectly with the book’s concept, occasionally it felt like almost too much. His shot at a fictional former White House Chief of Staff is particularly obvious. I agree with him, so it doesn’t bother me, but I was concerned that he was weakening the book’s punch and effect by taking these little indulgent side paths to get his kicks in at some of his less favorite things. Fortunately, it didn’t interfere, and stuck to the themes and reality of the book, but some readers may find them a bit much.

In the end, WWZ is solid from front to back. Brooks does what a storyteller should: tells a great tale that keeps you wanting more all the way through. If you enjoy zombie tales, post-apocalyptic tales, horror, or just plain fun, go get a copy of WWZ right now. Make a day of it. I can’t recommend it enough.

An interesting side note: Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, is working on a film version of the book. They better not mess it up, because if they don’t, it could be truly amazing. It is gratifying that he won it in a bidding war against Leonardo di Caprio’s production company, Appian Way. Not sure why, but it just makes me smile.