Booking a Room with a View

Join me as I shuttle and shoulder through the worlds of literature, cinema, and the awards seasons attending both.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Z-8A helicopters, OKT 3, an IDF soldier, ChiComs, AVLB portable bridge layer system, XM5 electronic warfare vehicles, FOL, BDUs, MOPP gear, MLRS, standard HE 155s, the SNT effect, FOTT missiles, Mark-19s, HEAT, SABOT, a SAW gunner, JSFs, the ANC, NIA agents, NATO's IFOR in Bosnia, the APC, a mammoth GAZ truck, Sukhoi 25 Rooks, RVX (which doesn't start out as gas, mind you), the BRO, DeStRes, a workforce classified F-6 (or A-1, depending on skills), CSSP, R&D, the M-1 Abrams, the NYSE, the D-Corps, micro missiles the size of a .22 rimfire bullet, a culture of RKR, NST, Lobos, an AMT Lightning, ADS, MTHEL, the FA-22, the JSOW, Inertial Nav, BLU-97B submunitions (or "bomblets"), B-2 Spirits, B-1 Lancers, BUFFs, the B-52 Big Ugly Fat Fellows, SAMs, AMARC, DDs, SSDs, the shit-for-brains QC inspector, C-130, UH-60, SSV-33, the MSS, JL-2 ballistic missiles, the ESM mast, Type 95 hunter-killers, the X-38, the ISS (that marvel of engineering), a proper EVA kit, the ASTRO, "Boba" the VR-operated robonaut, PSAs, the Orbital Denial Vehicle, BDUs, the SIR (a modcop of the AK, or a stripped-down version of the XM 8, depending on who you talk to), that sweet NATO 5.56 Cherry PIE ammo (yowser! it's like that old Warrant song!), BS duty (I can think of lots of alternative meanings for this...), one has gotta Out G the G, KO teams, PT and AIT, SC and LRP, DOA (which the novel wasn't quite -- although it was, for me, DALL by its end), AGN, PPSH submachine guns, T-34 tanks, STAVKA, the SU-152 self-propelled gun, the DSCC, ADS, JIMs, SAMs, the SBS, the Hardsuit 1200 (or 2000, depending on one's taste in hardsuits), the Mark 1 Exosuit, the M-9 (a knockoff of the Russian APS), the M-11, ZeVDeK, ROV, a full-on Alpha November Alpha, the Beretta-Grechio, don't forget the Cousteaus and Sandlers, FAR units (am I repeating myself now...?), Flies (you know, F-Lions, duh), LaMOEs...

Got that? 

Just because ours is a world of occasional acronyms, novelist Max Brooks, in his World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, likely thinks he is lending an air of realist MFA cachet to his apocalyptic nightmare by peppering the eyewitness "accounts" (of which his book is comprised) with them -- but pepper is meant to be used with caution, here and there (to prevent sneezing and choking). I don't, after all, head to the DMZ in my SUV with my MA folded in the back pocket of my LEVIs and a mind to look into the legitimacy of the CEO running -- FDR-style (because we know his presidency was a precursor of the CCCP) -- the North Korean equivalent of the USA's CIA, right? Right.

Note to Brooks: a catalogue of acronyms and military-speak do not a novel make. There. Got that out of my system. Now to the book's other flaws...

The worst possible thing Brooks could've done in setting out to write WWZ (forgive me) was to opt for first-person vignettes. Why? Because his range as a writer is so crushingly limited that 90% of what are supposed to be distinct individual voices sound exactly the same: their patterns of speech, their colloquialisms, etc. This was made all the more jarring for me as I had been reading Dickens's Bleak House leading up to WWZ, finishing the former while reading the latter -- and Dickens is the master of creating distinct characters on the page. (BH is a kind of symphony of voices.) I'm not saying Brooks needed to be Dickens to pull this feat off; I'm saying that any writer should be able to recognize what he can and cannot do, what she is and is not capable of achieving on the page. First-person narration strains Brooks's wheelhouse to its breaking point; a kaleidoscope of first-person narration is the novel's fatal flaw. The simple decision of settling on third-person omniscience would've gone a long way toward saving WWZ. But between giving us characters that are almost uniformly facsimiles of one another, silly cultural anachronisms (as when we're asked to believe that two Chinese medical doctors would use the word "hillbillies" in conversation) and drowning the prose in acronyms that do little (nothing?) but set readers to rolling their eyes, Brooks is guilty of extraordinary laziness here. And when he does look to make absolutely certain he conjures a unique voice, he overreaches in the extreme! Sharon, the supermodel-looking rehabilitated feral child with the intellect of a four-year-old, narrates like a lobotomized college freshman mimicking Ernest Hemingway pretending to be a Muppet Baby. What did Robert Downey Jr's character tell Ben Stiller's character in Tropic Thunder? Sage, if offensively couched, advice -- and hilarious, too...

Many of the images of the zombies (e.g. walking along the sea floor, moving across the Great Plains like herds of buffalo large enough to be seen from space, etc) were like spectacular hallucinations, and some of the interview segments were fascinating as facets of the response to this pandemic -- the decimation account of Maria Zhuganova, the rallying celluloid propaganda of Roy Elliot (a very thinly disguised Steven Spielberg), the descent into northward migration and cannibalism account of Jesika Hendricks -- but nothing in the novel moved me. And its central metaphor disturbs the hell out of me. Brooks has suggested that he used zombies as a metaphor for radicals and fundamentalists of both religious and political stripes in our world today -- such a reading is supported by scenes like the one at Lake Pichola in India, where zombies tumble lemming-like over the lip of a cliff. I find the whole metaphor offensive for two principal reasons: 1) that Brooks thinks it permissible to look at radicals not as individuals but as a horde (this dehumanizing of groups or movements is not new: the Communists in Vietnam were called Charlie, just as here the zombies are collectively known as Zack -- the irony of assigning an individual's name to a mass of people we're not intended to see as individuals is chilling), and 2) that he seems to think the slaughter of such radicals permissible, incapable of troubling human conscience, and a mark of manhood (the cavalier machismo of the soldiers in WWZ is overwrought to the point of being risible, whether blind and serene Tomonaga Ijiro "dispatch[ing] forty-one zombies in as many minutes" like David Carradine in Kung Fu, or Todd Wainio jizzing himself to an Iron Maiden soundtrack before opening fire, it's as though half of Brooks's characters are lugging their penises around in wheelbarrows).

In short: will Danny Boyle's sublime 28 Days Later never be bested?

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