World War Z could perhaps be considered the definitive zombie novel of the last decade; you’d be hard-pressed to find another stand-alone zombie story that comes more readily to the minds of modern readers. After finally reading it myself, I was happy to discover that is has, for a number of reasons, more than earned this revered status.
An unorthodox format
The subtitle of World War Z is “An Oral History of the Zombie War,” and that’s exactly what this book is. It isn’t told in the conventional format of a novel as there isn’t a protagonist or even a group of characters that the book follows. Instead, it is broken up into a series of many, many interviews (supposedly conducted by the author, Max Brooks), in which survivors of “World War Z” tell their stories. These stories are arranged in a roughly chronological format so as to follow the arc of the Zombie War from its inception to its conclusion, which, in its own way, makes the Zombie War itself the protagonist of the novel.
The format of World War Z may not sound like the recipe for engaging novel, but Max Brooks presents these interviews with such confidence that you simply cannot help but continue to turn the pages. With perhaps a few minor exceptions, every survivor’s story is crafted with such attention to detail that you’ll want to keep reading just to absorb all the meticulously drawn facets of the Zombie War. Unfortunately, the voice of each interviewee isn’t quite distinct enough to make any of them memorable beyond the actual content of their stories. They do begin to run together in a continuous stream that sounds more like conventional prose than the natural voices of separate people, but this is a relatively minor trade-off that detracts very little from the book as a whole.
If Brooks deserves to be commended for one aspect of World War Z above all others, it has to be the worldbuilding. By the time I finished the book, I felt as if I was actually a reader in the future who had flipped through the chronicle of a legitimate period in human history. Every detail of the Zombie War is colored with such real-world truth that they’ve been seared into my mind with an incredible vividness; I keep having to remind myself that the people and events that defined the Zombie War—Yonkers, Redeker, the Honolulu Conference—are all fictional.
Even more remarkable than this worldbuilding is that Brooks never resorts to heavy exposition, and that is perhaps the primary reason why World War Z is as engaging as it is. Instead of falling back on basic info dumping, Brooks uses a very clever technique to fill his readers in on these people and events: he splits them up into tiny bits of relevant information, and then strategically places that information within the interviews. Slowly, over the course of many interviews, you will be able to piece together the chronology of the Zombie War—and there is something immensely satisfying in being able to put everything together on your own, rather than simply being told what happened.
Although the individual interviewees in World War Z aren’t quite as distinct as I would have liked, many of their stories are astounding snapshots of high-quality writing. You might think that a novel told in the format of World War Z would fail to present thunderous action sequences or the moments of sheer, adrenaline-pumping terror that you’d naturally associate with a story about a “Zombie War,” but you’d be wrong. The interview format allows Brooks to give us both stories of the defining moments in the Zombie War through the perspectives of first-hand accounts and intensely personal stories of endurance and survival from the rest of the world’s populace. World War Z features massive, jaw-dropping battles between the military and the undead, heart-pounding escapes from zombie hordes, and even quiet, simple stories of people trying to find their place in a world where humanity is on the brink of annihilation. Some stories are straightforward and climatic, while others contain clever psychological twists. The variety between them all will keep you turning pages to find out what Brooks is going to throw at you next.
Why should you read this book?
There is a reason why World War Z is considered to be such a definitive zombie novel; it has everything you could want from this kind of story, and the refreshing interview format spices things up enough that the book is able to dodge the potentially dangerous pitfalls of not having a protagonist or any consistent characters to invest in throughout the course of the novel. Is it perfect? Certainly not. Even still, I had a blast with this book. I finished it feeling anything but disappointed, and the vivid (and often horrific) imagery still haunts me in the best way possible. World War Z is an absolute must-read for any fan of zombie stories or even speculative fiction in general, and I don’t hesitate at all in giving it my highest recommendation.