Thursday, July 18, 2013

Zombies in the mirror, zombies in the screen (exhibitionism and alienation in World War Z)

One of the most stimulating books I have read in a while is Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which uses the plot Macguffin of a global zombie infestation to examine various facets of our world – including socio-political structures, shifting relationships between nations, cultural taboos and paranoia, and the shaping of human nature in the cyber-age. This is a book of vignettes, related in straight-faced documentary style; it takes the form of testimonies collected by a UN agent after the zombie war is over. Without attempting a comprehensive review, I’d like to mention two of my favourite sections, both of which reflect on how modern technology has facilitated self-projection, narcissism and alienation.

The first of these is in the voice of a young Japanese man named Kondo, one of many survivors of the zombie apocalypse that the book chronicles in elaborate, realist detail. Raised in an education system based on rote learning and fact retention, and shielded from the practical aspects of life, Kondo calls himself an otaku, which to him simply means an outsider – someone who felt so cut off from the real world that he chose to retreat into a "better" one, where he could be more in control.

He means the Internet, of course.

If George Romero’s second zombie film Dawn of the Dead – which drew a direct line between zombies and the burgeoning shopping-mall culture – had such immediacy in the late 1970s, imagine the possibilities that exist for zombiedom in today’s world. The witty subtext to Kondo’s story is that he was for much of his life an automaton himself. He spent nearly all his waking hours staring into the hypnotic depths of a computer screen, mechanically sharing and acquiring information, interacting with people whom he didn’t really know, occasionally getting up and lurching to his bedroom door to collect the breakfast or dinner tray his mother had left for him outside. (Does any of this sound familiar? Mull the question for a few seconds between checking your Facebook notifications.)

When the zombie skirmish begins, Kondo and his online acquaintances treat it as they would a video game, as something that is in no way connected with their real-world lives (to whatever extent they are aware of having a real-world existence). They collect and exchange details about the conflict, monitor its spread, congratulate each other on their hacking skills.

Japan was doomed, but I didn’t live in Japan. I lived in a world of free-floating information. The siafu, that’s what we were calling the infected now, weren’t something to be feared, they were something to be studied. You have no idea the kind of disconnect I was suffering […] Japan might be evacuated, Japan might be destroyed, and I would watch it all happen from the safety of my digital mountaintop.
Of course, it doesn’t quite work out that way, and little wonder that when Kondo awakens to the most unthinkable crisis of his life – his computer is no longer working, the net is down – he goes nearly insane. Like the zombies, he needs something to feed on, and that something is the glow of the screen and the validation of others in the cyber-world. But all that is gone now, his parents – whose faces he barely remembers – seem to have disappeared too, he is agoraphobic about stepping out of his building, and so socially inept that knocking on a neighbour’s door, even in an emergency, is not an option. Besides, what are those shuffling noises coming from the hallway outside?

When Kondo finally does open his door and looks out, he sees one of the living dead crawling slowly on its belly toward him. “The left eye was locked on mine and its gurgling moan became a choked rasp.” We gather this is because the creature has spotted food – but perhaps it had simply recognized one of its own kind.


The other section is narrated by a man who was in the service of a wealthy employer (“I’m not sure what he really did. Something in entertainment, or high finance”) at the time the outbreak began. This moneyed show-off, we are told, converted his huge mansion into a secured, well-stocked fortress that no zombie could possibly breach, and made it a refuge for all the celebrities he knew (along with their personal staff). Which in itself was a good idea – the only problem was that he couldn’t resist setting up a 24/7 webcast from each room in the house, so that everyone in the outside world could see what he had done and marvel at it. In his blissfully hubristic playing of this Bigg Boss-like game, it didn’t occur to him that his viewers would make a beeline for this sanctuary, and do a better job of breaking into it (being sentient humans with the ability to plan and strategise) than the zombies could. And once that happened, even the staff would turn their backs on their celebrity bosses. We’d been paid to protect rich people from zombies, not from other not-so-rich people who just wanted a safe place to hide.

The idea of “regular” people trying to take over a place that was once reserved for the privileged has special resonance in a world of innumerable reality shows, TV contests and the constant playing out of the “15 seconds of fame” theme. But of course, this subplot is also about the unthinking, uncontrollable exhibitionism of the rich and famous. As the narrator says:

Sometimes I ask myself, why didn’t they all just shut the fuck up, you know? Not just my boss, but all of those pampered parasites. They had the means to stay way outta harm’s way, so why didn’t they use it? […] But then again, maybe they couldn’t, like a switch you just can’t turn off. Maybe it’s what made them who they were in the first place.
[More on World War Z soon. And no, I haven’t yet seen the film, which I’m told doesn’t have much to do with the book]


  1. Concerned Reader12:58 AM, July 18, 2013

    All right, go on...keep reading and promoting genre writing. And later when Chetan Bhagats and Durjoy Dattas sell a million copies, then bray about how the state of fiction in India is dismal and why only engineers are writing books now.

    Then later, to make up for this silliness, convince a journalist who works in the aviation and railway beat of TOI to write fiction. And when he does come up with a lackadaisical book, laud it to the skies, so that the problem is compounded. Ok?

    yehi karna, theek hai? kisi dhang ke writer ke baare mein mat likhna kabhi.

  2. CR: super comment, thanks for the laugh - I discontinued my year-end comments lists a long time ago, but I'll treasure this one. And do read World War Z, it's a very good book.

  3. Concerned Reader1:27 AM, July 18, 2013

    Don't be telling me about what books to read, good sir. I have read more books than you and the rest of your Business Standard gang put together. (say hello to NSR, if you meet her. She's too busy writing about cats, I hear. Imagine, India's Michiko Kakutani writing a fiction book, using the backdrop of cats! ughh)

    I know the reason for your "laugh", you must be going wild thinking, "But hey? which high profile Indian writer have I not covered?". And you would expect me to say, "Dude, you forgot so and so". But I am not going to do that. If you feel satisfied about the job that you've done, fine then...

    But the next time you bunch of self absorbed "lit critics" party at some retired Colonel's house in Sainik Farms, do me the favor of not acting as if you have done some great service to Indian literature (oh, and by the way "Indian literature" includes writings in Oriya, Punjabi, Tamil, Urdu, and yes, Hindi)

    [Would have used my real name, were it not for this never ending hostility that you guys can resort to. Will bump into you soon somewhere, where you'd be fumbling when the discussion turns to politics and economy. Keep some anecdotes from World War Z ready, some of us real journalists might want to get entertained. But don't wear a kurta, please. Really. Don't]

  4. CR: thanks again, this is going wonderfully well. I sort of see what you're doing - mimicking a paranoid zombie-hunter's thought process, yes? The voices-in-my-head impression in the 2nd para is particularly relevant. And the imagery of lit-crit zombies at a retired colonel's Sainik Farm house is spine-chilling - I must use it sometime in the novel I never write.

    Again, I'm sure you'll love World War Z - do pick it up soon.

  5. I wish there was a way to "like" comments on blogs! :p

  6. Hi Jai,

    The book while good and tries something different by going a little deeper, could have been much more if the writer had the ambition. He has asked so many "what ifs" and not followed them up. Each of them had stories worth telling and he could have built a whole mythical world there (like dark tower, middle earth etc.)

    Another way of looking at it is that the structure of writing is fresh and interesting but takes away the requirement of the most challenging part - crafting a story with characters.

  7. Sid: actually, that's the thing I liked best about it: the sense of fragments torn out of a much larger history. Your reference to a mythical world and Middle Earth makes me realise that I liked this book in the same sort of way that I love Tolkien's Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, with their tantalising sense of incompleteness, of things that have been left unsaid.

    And "what ifs" don't have to be followed up - they can be left hanging in the air. This story could of course have been told more like a regular, comprehensive narrative; but then it would have been a very different book.

  8. Jai,

    I referred to Tolkein for a different reason (Because of depth of the imaginary world rather than the unfinished nature of it) but I see your point.

    We barely get to know any character. What is their motivation? What were they doing before this happened? How did it turn out for them in the end? Did they like their lives, occupation etc. The narrator is as neutral as they come.

    I do praise the imagination and presentation. He wants to say that a Zombie apocalypse wont turn out to be a stand of few groups of people with a Rambo leading them (most likely in US as most stories go) and there will be a story for every corner and will involve very different reactions to the situation. Tom Clancy and Humphrey Hawksley also did that in their stories involving world war 3 like scenarios. But despite their splitting up of the event into many characters and locations, they could not resist personalizing it with characters and stories.

  9. Sid: the narrator is meant to be neutral - that is very much the intended structure of the book. (He even says as much in his prologue.) It is supposed to be a dry, episodic collection of testimonies.

    I can understand that this type of narrative (or anti-narrative) doesn't work for you personally as a reader - and that's fine. But one shouldn't judge a book for not being something it never set out to be in the first place.

  10. Hi jabberwock!
    Your reply to Concerened Reader is amusing. But I must say I disagree with him. I have discovered some interesting books and movies through your blog .So thanks for that.
    Would you recommend world war z to a guy who is fatigued with zombie movies?

  11. Anon: thanks. Though it isn't difficult to disagree with someone who has a blanket prejudice against popular/genre writing and also has issues with cats, colonels and kurtas!

    Yes, I'd definitely recommend that you read World War Z if you like good, apocalyptic fiction. As I mentioned, zombies aren't really the focus of this book anyway.