Isolated Thoughts: Pandemic Reading– World War Z

As I work through my reading for my pandemic fiction class, I’ll share my thoughts here as I go. I’m starting with World War Z because I recently heard its author Max Brooks interviewed on Fresh Air by Terry Gross, so it’s in the forefront of my mind. And because of the way my mind works, these thoughts led to another post on The Walking Dead, which I’ll put up tomorrow. So it’s going to be zombietown here for a few days.

Max Brooks, incidentally, is the son of Mel Brooks, with whom he made a PSA about self-isolation and social distancing.

World_War_Z_book_coverWorld War Z came out in 2006; I picked it up on a whim when I was at a Chapters in Toronto a little over ten years ago, and I was quite pleasantly surprised to find that the novel was not just a gripping read, but quite well written, and exhaustively researched. It is unusual compared with more typical exemplars of the zombie genre for being global in its scope. Its subtitle is “An Oral History of the Zombie War,” and comprises a series of testimonials from people interviewed ten years after the end of “hostilities.” What further sets World War Z apart from the genre is that it is preoccupied far less with the outbreak and subsequent collapse of society, than with the aftermath and the process of rebuilding. More and more, especially in the last ten years, post-apocalyptic narratives have come to focus on life in the aftermath of catastrophe, with the catastrophe itself functioning as a distant, albeit traumatic memory. Novels like World War Z and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) were in the vanguard, and anticipated the likes of Zone One (2011) by Colson Whitehead and Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel (and in my next post I’ll be talking about how The Walking Dead has shifted focus in this regard). But in the early years of the aughts, the shock of 9/11 inspired a host of zombie and zombie-adjacent films like 28 Days Later (2002) and Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004), films primarily concerned with the spectacle of outbreak and the abject failure of societal institutions—government, police, military, health care—to deal with the threat and keep people safe.

That is emphatically not Max Brooks’ style.

Before picking up World War Z, I was vaguely familiar with Brooks’ earlier work, The Zombie Survival Guide (2003), which I always saw in humour sections. After reading World War Z, I picked up the Guide, and realized that it had been mis-categorized—it’s not a serious text in the sense of warning of an imminent zombie apocalypse, but it is also obviously not written as either satire or parody. Rather, it is what World War Z would ultimately be, writ small—i.e. a thought experiment in disaster preparedness, or the lack thereof, and a variety of responses.

One topic I’ll be interested to explore in both my pandemic fiction class and the class on utopias and dystopias I’m slated to teach in the winter is the odd and indeed counter-intuitive persistence of nostalgia as a trope in dystopias and post-apocalyptic narrative. I’ll have more to say about that in a future post (especially with regards to Zone One, Station Eleven, and Ling Ma’s novel Severance [2018]); Brooks’ novel, as I stated, is essentially an exhaustive thought experiment working through the linked questions of (a) what a global zombie pandemic might look like and how it might unfold, and (b) how might the nations of the world as constituted in the early 21st century respond? Though the novel is impressively global in scope, it is saturated with nostalgia for a particular idea of America, and that idea is indeed what comprises the novel’s narrative spine. World War Z tracks the global movement through outbreak, panic, consolidation, and response, but the model for America’s ultimate victory over the living dead is that of the Great Depression and World War Two.

In other interviews I’ve seen, Brooks talks at length about how he inherited an ingrained sense of preparedness from his father Mel and mother Anne Bancroft, both of whom lived through the Depression and the war (Mel Brooks served in an engineering division responsible for clearing land mines in the European Theater), and passed onto their son the sensibilities of people who knew privation and danger. It is thus perhaps unsurprising that the nostalgic dimension of World War Z hearkens back to the fortitude and collective sacrifice of the Greatest Generation. This nostalgia is, in the novel, most clearly and specifically communicated by the character of Arthur Sinclair, the Secretary of the Department of Strategic Resources (a cabinet position designed specifically for the zombie war). Sinclair, prior to his appointment to this new cabinet post, was an ardent capitalist and Wall Streeter, largely because he was the child of Roosevelt-era New Dealers:

Those first months, I can’t tell you how much information I had to cram into this withered old cortex … I needed every idea, every word, every ounce of knowledge and wisdom to help me fuse a fractured landscape into the modern American war machine. If my father had been alive, he probably would have laughed at my frustration. He’d been a staunch New Dealer, working closely with FDR as comptroller of New York State. He used methods that were almost Marxist in nature, the kind of collectivism that would make Ayn Rand leap from her grave and join the ranks of the living dead. I’d always rejected the lessons he’d tried to impart, running as far away as Wall Street to shut them out. Now I was wracking my brains to remember them. One thing those New Dealers did better than any generation in American history was find and harvest the right tools and talent.

[Quick aside, for those who haven’t read the novel, and, really, for those who have: you should consider getting the audiobook. The novel is written as a series of interviews; in the audiobook, each character is voiced by someone of note. Carl and Rob Reiner take parts, as do notable SF figures like Mark Hamill, Denise Crosby, Jeri Ryan, Nathan Fillion, and Bruce Boxleitner; also featured are John Turturro, Common, Kal Penn, Jurgen Prochnow, Alfred Molina, and F. Murray Abraham. Among others. And the dude voicing Arthur Sinclair? Alan Alda! To paraphrase Mel Brooks from Robin Hood: Men In Tights, sometimes it’s good to be the son of the king.]

The broader subject of Brooks’ Fresh Air interview, as you might imagine, was the current pandemic, and the variety of responses to it. Since the success of World War Z, Brooks has become something of a professional disaster-response expert, and, in addition to consulting with the U.S. military on a variety of issues, is also a non-resident lecturer at the Modern War Institute at West Point. One of the points he made in the interview is that societies living with a siege mentality tend to be better equipped to respond quickly to a crisis, and he cited the admirable responses of South Korea and Taiwan to the conoravirus. This is a theme running through World War Z, in which Israel and post-apartheid South Africa are depicted as having quicker and more thorough responses. The United States, however, as he observed in the interview, tends to always be caught flat-footed. The Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, Sputnik, September 11th, the meltdown of 2008—and now, the coronavirus. However stunned the U.S. is by a given catastrophe, however—and herein lies the pervasive nostalgia of World War Z—its capacity to gear up and respond is unmatched.

Or, well, it should be. There is a contemptuous distaste for postmodern society of the “get off my lawn!” variety running through the novel, which is reflected in the way suburban and middle-class Americans are depicted as apathetic and preoccupied with trivialities. For example, a stereotypical suburban mom responds to the question of whether she was worried by the first news items about the zombie outbreak:

Oh, yeah. I was worried. I was worried about my car payments and Tim’s business loan. I was worried about that widening crack in the pool and the new nonchlorinated filter that still left an algae film. I was worried about our portfolio, even though my e-broker assured me this was just first-time investment jitters and that it was much more profitable than a standard 401(k). Aiden needed a math tutor, Jenna needed just the right Jamie-Lynn Spears cleats for soccer camp. Tim’s parents were thinking about coming to stay with us for Christmas. My brother was back in rehab. Finley had worms, one of the fish had some kind of fungus growing out of its left eye. These were just some of my worries. I had more than enough to keep my busy.

There is another account, narrated by an ex-military-turned-mercenary private security professional, of an entertainment billionaire who fortifies his Long Island mansion to ride out the apocalypse with several dozen of his best celebrity friends. The house is rigged with cameras in order to broadcast, reality-TV style, so people can watch the rich and famous watch the world burn, an obscene vanity project cut short when the house is attacked and taken over by ordinary people, and the celebrities’ entourages turn on them. Another account is told by a ruthless venture capitalist who made billions peddling false cures for the zombie virus, and in the novel’s present moment evades prosecution by holing up in an Antarctic compound á là Adrian Veidt in Watchmen.

The TL;DR is that pre-catastrophe America is lazy, greedy, and obsessed with trivialities, and thus gets taken completely off-guard by the pandemic; it is through the rediscovery of the values of community, sacrifice, and selflessness, as well as the values of true work that Brooks’ imagined U.S.A. gets over itself, and—as it did in the Second World War—become a world leader again.

The nostalgic quality of World War Z is in this respect specific and tangible, something of a paean to his Brooks’ parents’ generation; but it also shares the more nebulous—and more invidious—form of nostalgia that isn’t focused on a specific time, place, or era, but a vague sensibility that inflects the genre. Fantasy as a genre embodies this kind of nostalgia; zombie apocalypse, with its return to an essentially premodern existence shorn of the trivialities and distractions of the postmodern condition, shares that same desire for a simpler, more authentic, more visceral life, with no shades of grey. In a more typical offering, it is usually as simple as what I like to term the “survivalist fantasy”—the idea that one would, in such circumstances, prove to have the toughness, talent, and capacity for (completely justified) violence needed to survive the undead-infested world.

Brooks provides a somewhat more nuanced consideration of violence and sacrifice, but evinces the same nostalgic gesture for authenticity. His American characters pass through their traumatic trials, as do his international characters, but emerging out the other side with a more plainly expressed appreciation for what truly matters. Arthur Sinclair talks about how, in the early days of consolidation when the U.S. had carved out a safe zone west of the Rockies, one of his biggest trials was retraining a population that had forgotten how to do things for itself, which largely entailed inverting the social pyramid so people with blue-collar skills became the drivers of the American recovery, and the tutors for the ad executives and script consultants who were no obliged to sweep factory floors. In the end, however, Sinclair says, the early resentments gave way to satisfaction in their work:

I met one gentleman on a coastal ferry from Portland to Seattle. He had worked in the licensing department of an advertising agency, specifically in charge of procuring the rights to classic rock songs for television commercials. Now he was a chimney sweep. Given that most homes in Seattle had lost their central heat and the winters were now longer and colder, he was seldom idle. “I keep my neighbours warm,” he said proudly. I know that sounds a little too Normal Rockwell, but I hear stories like that all the time. “You see those shoes, I made them,” “That sweater, that’s my sheep’s wool,” “Like the corn? My garden.” That was the upshot of the more localised system. It gave people the opportunity to see the fruits of their labour. It gave them a sense of individual pride to know they were making a clear, concrete contribution to victory.

Perhaps it’s not so much Rockwell as Marx, as what Sinclair describes is the reversal of workers’ alienation from their labour.

It was striking, though, on re-reading this passage to think of the current moment in which people whose labour has tended to be devalued—store cashiers, shelf-stockers, food delivery people and those who prepare the food for delivery, and of course health care workers—are the ones making it possible for the rest of us to self-isolate. The scale of our current crisis isn’t remotely close to what Brooks imagines—which is good, because I’d almost certainly be shambling and moaning about the streets looking for someone alive to snack on—but I can only hope we take away a comparable lesson.

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One response to “Isolated Thoughts: Pandemic Reading– World War Z

  1. Pingback: Isolated Thoughts: The End of America, or, Living the Dystopian Tropes | it's all narrative

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