Let's Read World War Z Pt. 8: Modern Times

Remember World War Z? It's back! In blog form!

Have I used that joke before? No one tell me if I have.

After not having the energy to do any of these for a few, uh, months, I'm feeling somewhat better and ready to get back in the saddle. Over the next few posts we're going to blow through a few chapters, get to the point where the book reaches the absolute pinnacle of its bad and bizarre creative choices, then wrap this thing up. I had initially intended to cover the whole book, but upon rereading it for this project I discovered that most of the parts I wanted to talk about (the really bad parts) are in the first third or so; after that it mostly turns into a fairly competent military fiction yarn, and there's just not a lot to talk about beyond the ever-present national stereotypes.

Let's get into it with a quick visit to…


[This neighborhood is, according to the brochure, the “New Community” for the “New America.” Based on the Israeli “Masada” model, it is clear just from first glance that this neighborhood was built with one goal in mind.

I find it odd that this innovation was developed in Israel, given that Israel is one of the few countries confirmed to have never experienced any significant zombie activity. For whatever reason the book seems to be hell-bent on portraying Israel as the pinnacle of efficiency, so I guess this ties into that.

Our interviewee this time around is Mary Jo Miller, a middle-class everywoman who's going to provide a biting satire of America.

Get it? Biting? Because

of the zombies

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 investor jitters and that it was much more profitable than a standard 401(k).

I'm torn on this. It's clearly trying to potray average Americans at the time of the zombie outbreak as mindless sheeple too concerned with the mundane drudgery of their everyday lives to see the imminent threat rising. On one hand, that seems kind of unfair since the book has been pretty unclear on how much information ordinary people actually had and how quickly the zombie situation went from “locally disastrous depending on where you live but not anything to get worked up about otherwise” to “holy shit they're everywhere”.

On the other hand though, it would make for a pretty accurate summation of the situation we're currently in with climate change.

But on the even more other hand, there isn't a whole lot most individuals can do about that, and giving up all of your day to day responsibilities and concerns to obsess over the end of the world isn't really helpful or productive.

Did you watch the news?

Yeah, for about five minutes every day: local headlines, sports, celebrity gossip. Why would I want to get depressed by watching TV? I could do that just by stepping on the scale every morning.

Did your husband check his hairline in the mirror every morning? Because then this would hit every single suburban stereotype.

But then that first winter things died down, remember, and anyway, it was a lot more fun to rehash last night’s episode of Celebrity Fat Camp or totally bitch out whoever wasn’t in the break room at that moment.

There is no way anyone would say these things in an interview that they knew other people were going to read. The only way this makes sense is if Fictional Max Brooks has all of his interview subjects doped up to the gills beforehand.

Zoloft and Ritalin SR for Aiden, and Adderall XR for Jenna. It did the trick for a while. The only thing that pissed me off was that our insurance didn’t cover it because the kids were already on Phalanx.

Is this whole thing with kids being over-medicated actually true? I hear that a lot (to the point of people claiming that conditions like ADHD don't even exist), but it feels like one of those things a lot of people claim to know, but they can't explain how they know it or what evidence led them to that conclusion.

Admittedly, I also haven't looked into it, which is why I'm asking my blog readers about it.

That was our way of being prepared . . . and Tim buying a gun. He kept promising to take me to the range to learn how to shoot. “Sunday,” he’d always say, “we’re goin’ this Sunday.” I knew he was full of it. Sundays were reserved for his mistress, that eighteen-footer, twin-engine bitch he seemed to sink all his love into.

Yes, the husband has a boat he cares about more than his wife. Because, once again, this book is populated entirely by stereotypes.

So anyway, one night the family were attacked by zombies, which came out of the ocean. This is part of the book's explanation for how the zombie plague spread between continents: zombies walking along the seabed until they wander up to dry land. I feel like the book is wildly underestimating the size of the major oceans here, but whatever, let's just roll with it.

Some decent zombie action ensues, during which Mary Jo hulks out and tears a zombie's head off to save her daughter.

I . . . I’m not totally sure. When I try to remember, everything goes by too fast. I had it by the neck. It pulled Jenna toward its open mouth. I squeezed hard . . . pulled . . . The kids say I tore the thing’s head off, just ripped it right out with all the flesh and muscle and whatever else hanging in tatters. I don’t think that’s possible. Maybe with all your adrenaline pumping . . .

This mama bear trope where a woman gains superhuman strength to save her children is something I've noticed in a lot of bad fiction (specifically bad American fiction). I’m not sure why hacky writers are so attracted to it. Sound off in the comments if you have any theories.

The next section of the book—THE GREAT PANIC—begins with a chapter detailing the initial mass exodus from…everywhere, I guess, once the zombie plague really goes worldwide. I feel like there was a convenient skip here so that the book doesn’t have to detail how the situation got so badly out of hand: like with the other global locations, the story goes from isolated outbreaks and attacks to a full-on army of the dead devouring everything in its path mostly off-page. Other than that the chapter is just haranguing the STUPID PANICKY SHEEP that populate modern America for trying to drive away from the zombies and clogging up the roads.

I’m also going to skip over the following chapter, which is about a guy in India trying to flee via boat. It’s actually one of the better chapters in the whole book—the description of the carnage that ensues when thousands of people flee to the beaches and overwhelm the nearby ships is genuinely nail-biting—but there isn’t much to say about it.

The next one, though…whoo boy.

Taking place in Kansas, the chapter is an interview with a woman named Sharon, who escaped a zombie massacre in a church at the age of four and managed to survive on her own until the end of the war. Because of this she, like the other “feral” children who found themselves in a similar situation, has the mind of a young child.

Yeah, I’m…not really sure that’s how that would work? Clearly, isolating a four year old from all human contact for an extended period of time (not to mention forcing them to scrounge for food in a post-apoclyptic wasteland) would have very detrimental effects, but the book seems to be taking an odd and extreme nurture over nature stance whereby kids stop developing if they’re not around adults. Obviously, a lot of child development is a matter of learning and emulating behaviour, but a big part of it is also brain development, which isn’t going to stop just because the child doesn’t have a caregiver. In the opening preamble a case-worker says that Sharon is lucky because she has “a cohesive thought process”, but is that something that kids need to be taught? I’m sure spending her formative years in the woods or whatever would make a kid’s way of thinking highly maladaptive to organized society, but surely they’d still have one.

At least, this is all assuming I’m interpeting the chapter correctly. It’ kind of vague; the very first time I read this back book in secondary school I thought Sharon was supposed to have severe down syndrome or some other developmental disability seperate from the zombie situation and that’s why she “has the mind of a four year old girl”, and then I started thinking that maybe her issues were meant to be a result of trauma-induced mental illness and not just living wild for years. It’s really not clear.

Regardless of what the book was going for, the actual execution is…well…a total disaster. This chapter calls on Real Life Max Brooks to try to emulate the diction of a young child, which is something even very skilled writers tend to struggle with; I’d argue it’s one of the hardest things to write convincingly. Brooks’ dialogue often feels artificial anyway, so this is him writing on Nightmare Mode and he totally botches it. Let’s see some examples:

We were in church, Mommy and me. Daddy told us that he would come find us. Daddy had to go do something. We had to wait for him in church. Everybody was there. They all had stuff. They had cereal, and water, and juice, and sleeping bags and flashlights and . . . [she mimes a rifle]. Mrs. Randolph had one. She wasn’t supposed to. They were dangerous. She told me they were dangerous.

Why would a four year old know what a sleeping bag and a flashlight are, but not a gun? If she had a conversation with an adult about them—a conversation she remembers all the way into adulthood—wouldn’t the adult have said “this is a gun” or “these are called rifles” or something?

And actually, how does Sharon remember any of this? How does she remember specific people’s names from when she was four? When the book says she “has the mind of a four year old” it seems to be taking that extremely literally, like she entered some sort of mental stasis immediately after this zombie attack, such that no new memories were formed and the ones she already had never decayed (she remembers all of this, but apparently couldn’t tell anyone what she had been doing in the years since). I’m pretty sure that’s impossible.

She was Ashley’s mommy. Ashley was my friend. I asked her where was Ashley. She started to cry. Mommy told me not to ask her about Ashley and told Mrs. Randolph that she was sorry. Mrs. Randolph was dirty, she had red and brown on her dress. She was fat. She had big, soft arms.

This isn’t how young children talk. The book is trying to depict the way they meander around in nonsensical circles and have difficulty staying on the same topic for more than a few sentences, but it just sounds fake.

There were other kids, Jill and Abbie, and other kids. Mrs. McGraw was watching them.


The only memories I have from before I started school—below five—are extremely fragmentary and vague. I sure as hell can’t remember the name of anyone I met once when I was four. I know some people can remember their early years more clearly, but this is ridiculous.

Is this just me? Can you recall the names of your preschool classmates or teachers even if you didn’t stay in contact with them (whether or not they were eaten by zombies) or had that information reinforced by your parents or other adults?

Mommy was talking to Mrs. Cormode and other mommies. They were fighting. Mommy was getting mad. Mrs. Cormode kept saying [in an angry drawl], “Well what if? What else can you do?”

You get the picture. It’s a wildly unrealistic level of recall combined with cringe-inducing dialogue. The first time I came to this chapter I had to skip over it due to intense second hand embarassment.

Next time: over to Russia!