The new year brought zombies down upon us. My Laddie, desperate to fill the void left by finishing Fallout 4, started playing Dying Light and scampers off to his computer after dinner, chanting “zombies, zombies, zombies!” My monsters are pagebound, re-animated only in my imagination: after letting it languish on my reading list for years, I finally read World War Z by Max Brooks.
Have you ever read a book where something doesn’t quite sit right with you? You can’t quite put a finger on it, but it nags at you. Fifty pages in, it hit me. I frowned, flipping back through chapters I’d already read.
“What is it?” Laddie asked, peeling his eyes from his Kindle to glance across the pillow at me.
“This book is a series of interviews with different characters,” I explained.
“So I’m fifty pages in and there hasn’t been a single female character!”
The first female survivor appeared a few minutes later, around page sixty of my used paperback copy. Okay, it’s not totally devoid of women; maybe I judged too soon, I thought. Then the character, in the opening lines of her story, proceeds to complain about her kids and her weight. I fought the urge to toss the book aside in frustration. I waited sixty pages for female representation and I get a cliched sitcom soccer mom?
For the remainder of the novel, I felt hyperaware of the story’s gender imbalance. After finishing it, I couldn’t resist going back for statistics. World War Z consists of approximately forty “interviews” with characters who survived a zombie apocalypse. Out of those forty, only five are female. Yes, five. I counted. Barely ten percent. Someone must have taken a “No Girls Allowed” sign from a 1950’s treehouse and tacked it on the door of the zombie shelter. A more appropriate title for the book would be World War Y, for Y chromosome.
I didn’t sense any deliberate sexism on the author’s part. In general, the women mentioned in the periphery of the narrative are not portrayed in weak or negative ways. So perhaps Max Brooks wasn’t comfortable writing from a woman’s perspective. He should have more confidence: my favorite episode in the book was the tale of a female fighter pilot shot down in an infested wilderness who finds the determination to save herself. In an otherwise diverse novel where characters hail from many nations and walks of life, such glaring one-sidedness dismayed me. Brooks uses the epistolary format to explore numerous perspectives on the zombie war, but includes only a whisper of female voices.
Feminist criticism aside, I had a hard time getting into the story. The interview format brings a sense of historical realism, but at the expense of momentum. A timeline of the zombie war unfolds across the interviews without any of the building suspense one expects in a traditional narrative. Events are referenced in multiple interviews, but there’s almost no continuity between the characters. Brooks took a well-developed thought experiment—how human civilization would cope with a zombie plague—and tried to cram it into a semi-narrative form. I appreciate the concept, it just didn’t work for me.
Many of the anecdotes lacked drama and read like pieces of a mildly imaginative sociology paper. The better ones functioned as short stories, with a flicker of narrative arc. Compounded, the result is a fragmented vision with some engaging ideas, but not enough cohesive storytelling to pull it all together. I never felt that “my alarm goes off in six hours but I just have to know what happens next” imperative that distinguishes a really good story. It was more like reading from the hardbound Intellectual Devotional on my nightstand, habitually consuming the next installment without expectation of deep engagement.
In all fairness, zombies aren’t really my thing. My Laddie and I forced ourselves through the first half-dozen episodes of The Walking Dead after friends repeatedly insisted how good it was, but we just couldn’t get into it. It’s possible my ambivalence towards the zombie trend made me more critical of this book. Yet I began the novel wanting to like it. I thought the innovative structure might make the subject matter more believable and create a unique literary experience. Unfortunately, it only made the story pokey and hard to finish. And if the gender representation in this book is indicative of the surviving population the human race is in serious trouble.