Thursday, March 5, 2015

My take on "World War Z" by Max Brooks

A moment’s preamble:  In June of 2014 I began graduate school at Seton Hill seeking an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. This term I’m enrolled in a course that focuses on MONSTERS, and as a part of that course I’ll blog on each book/story/movie covered.

I'll break each review down into 4 parts: Strength of Character, Genre potency, Poignancy of themes, and Entertainment Value. For each of these I will assign a letter grade. My reviews will contain **SPOILERS** 

“(World War Z) is a collection of individual accounts narrated by an agent of the United Nations Postwar Commission, following the devastating global conflict against the zombie plague. Other passages record a decade-long desperate struggle, as experienced by people of various nationalities. The personal accounts also describe the resulting social, political, religious, and environmental changes.” –Wikipedia
Strength of Character: B-

This was a very tricky novel for me to rate for character. The book has a global scale and scope that take center stage away from the individual, although many of the sections do delve into more personal struggles.

The story of World War Z does not closely follow any central characters in anything resembling the usual three act story structure. Nor does it do more than hint at character arcs and change, and character arcs it does address, like Todd Wainio’s, occur mostly off-the-page. We are presented with a man who was changed by his experiences, but we don’t walk in-step with him along the path to those changes.

The characters do, however, provide the vehicle for the story, and it is through their myriad voices that we hear the tale of World War Z.  

Genre Strength: A-

Although some understandable zombie-fatigue may be going around out there, I found Max Brooks’ oral history style to be a refreshing twist. It is difficult to find zombies particularly frightening these days, but what is genuinely horrifying are the ways that humans react. People turn on one another, governments fail their citizens, betray them, even sacrifice them, panic creates disasters that could’ve otherwise been avoided, cowardice and greed run rampant. These events feel so real in World War Z that you could’ve sworn you saw them on the news last night. That is a great storytelling, and it adds up to an engaging horror novel.

Thematic Poignancy: A

This was a book brimming with powerful themes. It begins with the frailty of man, the stubbornness, the greed, the cowardice. We see glimmers of courage, but in the face of hopeless odds the sense of helplessness dominates. What can be done to fight despair? To persist in a world gone to hell?

Max Brooks asks those questions, and then slowly answers them. We see the world come back from the brink. Hope returns, however fleeting, and humanity adapts. In the end, there was a tone of quiet, bittersweet triumph.

Entertainment Value: B+

All that stuff that you keep wondering about on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” like what the hell is happening everywhere else? Are there zombies in the ocean? In the snow? What about in the desert? China? If you can’t stand not knowing potential answers to these types of questions, I highly recommend this book. The only caveat I make is that Max Brook’s outlook on humanity starts of as bleak as any, but by the end, is a relative success story. The world of The Walking Dead has never felt that way to me.

Overall, after I got over some initial misgivings about the lack of a central character, I found this novel extremely entertaining. I am a sucker for great character arcs, though, and at times the novel wanted for them.

Random Notes and Final Grade: B+

*For my money, this novel far outshines the 2013 Film it inspired. Don’t think you know the story of “World War Z” just because you saw the movie. The book is nearly unrecognizable in relation, other than by the existence of zombies and one or two scenes that bear a slight resemblance.
*Military bravado turned into outright disaster. Troops under supplied, and an enemy underestimated. The Yonkers section was a delight to read, and may be the one section that stays with me the longest.

*The “Redeker plan” for leaving behind large sections of the populace as bait for the zombies is the sort of cold, horrific thinking that I find so damn compelling in the zombie apocalypse. His plan isn’t just unethical, that’s way too mild a term. It is horrific. Yet it saves lives. Millions. The cherry on top of this zombie-brain pie is of course the shattered psyche of the man who invented it, now unable to reconcile his reality with his guilt.

*The inclusion of, and attention to, ocean-walking zombies was something I had never seen done. It was a nice surprise that paid dividends throughout the book in some of my favorite sections, from the disaster at the beach, to the Chinese submarine, and even to the zombie-killing deep sea divers.


  1. I agree with you on the lack of character arch. But I think it had to do with the style in which it was written. It's a very journalism meets folklore style. Which by its nature is "nothing but the facts as they were reported," (Well...ideally journalism should be that way...but that's a debate for another time). It also doesn't help that the only character we see more than once is the interviewer, who we know nothing about. Is it female? Is it male? We have no idea. The interviewer is totally flat. That leaves us with very little room to see any real character arch. The thing that makes this book good also hurt it's Character arch. But clearly it did just fine and got published, so doing so can't be that bad...can it?

  2. I think that it speaks to the advice to do something different. I've never read anything like World War Z before. If it were just a single character, however it would have been more like "World War ZZZZZZZZ" I felt that the change in perspective helped keep the story moving and fresh. Without it, the book would have been a flop