The Zombie Renaissance

Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Quirk Books, 2009.

Max Brooks. The Zombie Survival Guide. Three Rivers Press, 2003.

Max Brooks. World War Z. Three Rivers, 2007

Critics have been worrying about the death of the novel for decades, and the publication of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is unlikely to change that. The leading suspect in the novel’s murder has so often been mass culture—thief of time, sapper of seriousness—and here it is growing upon a literary classic like an aggressive tumor:

“And is Miss Darcy as handsome as her brother?” said Mrs. Gardiner.

“Oh! Yes, the handsomest young lady that ever was seen; and so accomplished! She beheaded her first unmentionable not one month after her eleventh birthday!”

It would be one thing if Austen’s masterpiece had been fully reimagined by Seth Grahame-Smith as a horror story. That would have made it an eccentric addition to a growing body of Austen fan fiction from which one can, for instance, get Mr. Darcy’s perspective on the novel’s events, or follow him into his first years of marriage to Elizabeth Bennet. With its frequently harsh judgments of individual human worth and savage wars of social position, the brightly lit novel of manners makes for dark shadows that might have been worth exploring. Instead Grahame-Smith merely tacks the equivalent of “and zombies” onto various parts of Austen’s public domain text and calls it a day. Also (but perhaps advertising this would have made the title too long) the Bennet sisters have been trained as ninjas. The mash-up plays like a long, dumb joke and could not have taken more than a few weekends to accomplish. Even so, it is strangely appealing, and has been outselling new copies of the original on Amazon by a mile.

Of course, from a more forgiving perspective, the very success of such a gimmick might be taken as a sign of continuing life in the “carnivalesque” genre of the novel. Here is the Novel reconnecting with the People, giving them What They Want, and what they want are zombies. There has of late been no shortage of serious writers swerving with fanfare into the lowly precincts of genre fiction—now Michael Chabon in Gentlemen of the Road, now Denis Johnson in Nobody Move—as though to recharge the batteries of the literary novel, and what of it? Wasn’t the self-serious “art-novel” as it descends from Henry James always an aberration from the genre’s essential popularity? In his own day James sold a fraction of the books unloaded by his more commercially successful peers. In fact, isn’t Pride and Prejudice basically a proto-Harlequin romance, cruel hero and all? Has it not been made into a movie fifty times?

All Grahame-Smith has done is underline that fact by dragging the book still lower, into the pulp at the very bottom of the cultural barrel. You could call it the revenge of the lowbrow on the middlebrow, but ironically, if only through sheer laziness, it leaves the vast majority of Austen’s original text unmangled. Arguably the fan fiction rewriters of Austen commit more heinous crimes against her than the zombies do. Her new coauthor has merely created a sort of Trojan horse for the novel, a fun-looking zombie romp out of which springs great literature, dripping a bit of gore. He and his publisher, Quirk Books, deserve to be paid a royalty for that.

But what if we were to venture a different, more literal interpretation of this cultural symptom, which is after all only one of many signs that we are currently witnessing a zombie renaissance? Perhaps the zombie attack on Austen’s novel is telling us that the novel is neither alive nor dead but undead. We are living in a time when what counts as “life” is in significant scientific dispute, and in the heyday of zombie computers and zombie banks, zombie this and zombie that. Why wouldn’t we also be living in a time of zombie literary forms? Whatever their specific emphases and intricacies, all these zombies represent a plague of suspended agency, a sense that the human world is no longer (if it ever was) commanded by individuals making rational decisions. Instead we are witnessing a slow, compulsive, collective movement toward Malthusian self-destruction. Of course all monsters are projections of human fears, but only zombies make this fundamentally social and self-accusatory charge: we the people are the problem we cannot solve. We outnumber ourselves.

To say that the novel is a zombie genre is therefore not only to say that it may have outlived its life as a key cultural form, animated now only by its connections to film and television on the one hand, the university on the other. It is also to say something about what has often been taken, most recently by Benjamin Kunkel in an essay in Dissent, as the novel’s chief claim to our attention and respect and even political hope. This is its capacity for the creation of deep, psychologically complex fictional characters, the kind we find at the center of realist novels like Pride and Prejudice. Their “roundness” makes space for our fondest hopes for humanity, that it might stop and reflect and set a course for a better world. To the extent that these characters continue to appear in contemporary fiction, do they succeed in killing the crowd of zombies gnawing at the metaphorical door?

Zombies are “characters” in the sense recently revived by the critic Aaron Kunin—they are a type whose existence extends beyond any one work or even medium. This is why we can speak of “the zombie” in the first place, and why the specter of the ludicrous hovers even over the realist commitment to character. In his book on laughter Henri Bergson observes, “In one sense it might be said that all character is comic, provided we mean by character the ready-made element in our personality, that mechanical element which resembles a piece of clockwork wound up once for all and capable of working automatically. It is, if you will, that which causes us to imitate ourselves.” When “clockwork” characters show up in popular genre fiction, as they so often do, critics are apt to take them as an aesthetic offense to the human. It might be more accurate to say that our aesthetic displeasure in hackneyed types records our confrontation with a truth about the human we would rather deny, but which the zombie brings to the fore. As a kind of character, then, the zombie is a pure negation of the concept of character at the heart of Austen’s realism.

In the philosophy of mind they also talk about zombies, and their zombies at first glance have little to do with the rotting, moaning corpses of pop culture. The point of the philosophical zombie is to imagine a person who is physically indistinguishable from a regular living person, who acts perfectly normal, but who is not conscious. For some, like David Chalmers, our ability to conceive of such a figure confirms the impossibility of attempts to reduce consciousness to a physical substrate in the brain. We could describe every feature of that substrate without beginning to explain what it feels like to be awake and aware. Others, like Daniel Dennett, are unimpressed with mere logical “conceivability” as a standard for anything, and declare the zombie a misleading fiction. If a zombie were physically identical to me then he would have to be conscious, too: the mind is only a certain physical state of the brain and nervous system and to some extent the world with which it intimately interacts. The real zombie for Chalmers, from the physicalist perspective, is a folk-psychological sense of self as a distinct spectator in the theater of consciousness, and it must be killed in the pursuit of truth.

Dennett claims not to be troubled by the loss of a spectator in the theater of consciousness, insisting that the truths of biology are even more wonderful and beautiful than this fantasy. The rise of the zombie in popular culture registers the same truth about human beings as does neuroscience, but for all its silliness takes the pulp imagery of the philosophy of mind—not only zombies, but brains in vats, mad scientists, phantom limbs, and cruel regimes of sensory deprivation—more seriously than Dennett does. Which is not to deny the half-assery of a book like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but rather to attempt to exploit it for a few questions of genuine literary-historical interest: What should the novel do once consciousness has been physically “explained”? What happens to the tradition of novelistic realism stemming from Austen when the reality is that we are all a bunch of tottering skin-bags animated by neural subroutines? The second half of the 20th century witnessed an eruption of skepticism about the reality of fictional characters on the part of literary critics and writers like William Gass: these “people,” it was said with some disdain, are only a set of tired linguistic conventions, nothing more than words on the page. Perhaps that revelation was a quaint preface to the deeper and more widespread intimation of “posthumanity” we are witnessing so vividly in popular culture now, when neuroscience is letting the air out of some assumptions that have propped up our species’ self-image for as long as we can remember.

Never mind the enchanting inwardness of fictional characters like Austen’s protagonist Elizabeth Bennet—what if the human experience of selfhood it was assumed to reflect is itself a cheesy special effect? It is one thing to track the decorous decay of religious authority in the rise of the realist novel, as James Wood deftly did fifteen years ago in The Broken Estate, quite another to track the decline of the human being into a violently delusional animal. The former concerned the difficulty of leaving the lap of God to roam what Wood calls the novel’s “special realm of freedom.” It was about the inflation of human authority in the breakdown of religion and the taste for representational verisimilitude that comes in its train. The latter is more intimately troubling, a crisis in the mind, and is associated with a derangement of good taste. The zombie renaissance registers the rapid corrosion even of our secular myths about the self, not least the myth of its rational autonomy. It leads not to realism but to the weirdness of allegory.

Zombies have been around for most of a century, migrating out of Haitian folklore and into American movie theaters as early as the 1930s. For decades they labored anonymously in the cinematic backwater of Voodoo Gothic, holding no real standing in the community of the Undead. The brightest star in that firmament has always been the vampire, with his elegantly alarming fangs and aristocratic lineage, and a philosophically instructive vampire vs. zombie class war is being conducted before our eyes today. Vampires are smart, agile, glamorous. Even when presented as a sort of minority community, as in the HBO show True Blood, they are also highly individualized, even eccentric, with identities held intact across centuries. They are “historical” figures in this sense, a representation, within the generic, of the realist ideal of character. But as the recent multimedia megahit Twilight makes clear, they should more properly be thought of simply as celebrities, beings superior to us in every way except morally. They represent the cruelty entailed in all our dreams of exalted individuality.

Not so the plodding zombie, to whom we generally feel superior. Compared to vampires, zombies are dull, dim-witted, déclassé—the monster lumpenproletariat. Forever teetering on the brink of ridiculousness, they convert the vampire’s relatively dignified desire to drink blood into an unrestrained instinct to devour flesh or, in an interesting recent variation on the original, brains. If vampires are celebrities, perhaps zombies are their most pathetically frenzied fans, a surreal image of ourselves as audience. As Nathanael West’s grotesque Day of the Locust was the first to portray, and is confirmed daily in the cruelty-to-celebrities enterprises of Perez Hilton and TMZ, underneath the obsessive love of celebrities is a steampipe of hatred waiting to blow. Why can’t we all be “characters” like them—special? How dare they suck the blood of my self-respect? Is that what the urge to eat brains actually is, a longing to be a character? Except that zombies don’t seem to care whose brains they are eating. Theirs is a blind, impersonal threat, a microbial threat personified. They are equally hostile to all conscious human life.

One can see the parthenogenesis of the modern, post-voodoo zombie beginning in Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend and its several film versions. The all too numerous ghouls in that story can still talk—and they are called vampires!—but the plague they have contracted has reduced them to a spastically violent population. They are vampires, sure, but anyone can see that they are becoming zombies. In the late 1960s, with the appearance of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the modern zombie came into his own, crawling from the grave to find himself fully assimilated into the mainstream of American horror with only fugitive traces of his Haitian roots remaining in view. The Afro-Caribbean otherness of the voodoo zombie is channeled into domestic political allegory. In the film’s closing sequence, the handsome African-American hero has staved off the zombies all night with a white woman, only now to be casually shot dead by a local police-vigilante group marching through the countryside with dogs to put down the zombie uprising. Although obscure in its finer points of contact with contemporary political reality, as any good allegory should be, the civil rights implications of the film are unmistakably troubling, bordering on hopeless. The system can’t keep different kinds of otherness straight, and so all that heroism was for nothing.

The zombies who emerge from Romero are lurching piles of dead flesh with a relentless will to consume, and not much more. Ungraced even by the intentions of the evil witchdoctor whose bidding they used to do, they wander aimlessly and apolitically in search of food. Their origins are not interesting. They no longer even have names. They are the lowest common denominator of horror. Almost always appearing in great numbers, they can stand for the refusal of history’s millions of uncelebrated casualties to remain buried in the conscience of the living. Less heavily, as in Edgar Wright’s comedy Shaun of the Dead, they are drone workers commuting to service industry jobs on the bus. Not that our potential sympathy for the zombie could ever erase his more obvious significance as what we have learned to call an “existential threat.” Zombies will always stand for humanity as the ultimate perpetrator of “inhuman” crimes, not for humanity’s victims. This ironically gives human characters—not to mention millions of real live video-game players—permission to kill them one by one, with pleasure, and without fear of censure. But whether it is zombie-on-human or human-on-zombie crime hardly matters: together they body forth a formal principle of violent othering, the conversion of friend into enemy, friend into food. In Romero’s second film, Dawn of the Dead, most of which takes place in a shopping mall, the zombies are simply (but also quite literally) consumers, victims of the American faith in shopping, and mindless murderers, too.

It is perhaps no wonder that zombies, being monstrously generic, have a special relation to the question of “genre” in the shameful sense it acquired after the rise of literary modernism, which favored works that almost defy us to categorize them, like Ulysses, and sold us on the idea that “literary fiction” is not a genre like detective fiction or romance but a negation of the generic. A great success in the comics (The Walking Dead) and video games (Left 4 Dead) as well as the movies, the zombie has of late begun to spread throughout the entire media ecology. The early success of the Facebook application Zombies already said a lot about the link between social networks and the spread of disease—in this case the disease of trivialization. Now it has been joined by iPhone games (Zombieville), a book of joke poetry (Zombie Haiku), an ambiguously tongue-in-cheek self-help book (The Zen of Zombie), as well as several ongoing series of zombie horror novels and short story anthologies. Cumulatively, they can be taken to suggest that, while we might not “really be living,” as the sententious phrase goes, we remain animated by our media, which live our lives for us.

In Max Brooks, son of the director Mel Brooks, the zombie has found a writer of substantial talent. In a more just world his Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z would be strong enough to drag the zombie into some semblance of cultural respectability on their own account. They succeed not by dismissing but embracing the generic so tightly that it pops, releasing the gas of excellence. World War Z is billed as an “Oral History of the Zombie War,” and while it seeks to account for the “human factor” in that imaginary cataclysm, its myriad individual voices—from the Chinese doctor who encountered Patient Zero in the provinces, to the American who began marketing a fake vaccine for the plague, to the Indian white-collar professional who sought refuge at sea, to the young Palestinian forced to take refuge with the Israeli enemy, and on and on—are all threaded into the flow of people and goods and power through a global network that is indifferent to individual ends. The contagion narrative of world zombification is thus an allegory of the contemporary world system and its many risks, and characters exist in it to mark representative points on a much larger map. Without any protagonist among them, they present a remarkably egalitarian version of what Alex Woloch in The One vs. the Many called the “character system” of the 19th-century realist novel, which typically flattens most characters in order to foreground the ones we are supposed to care about. For Woloch this competition for our attention mirrors the competitive asymmetries of capitalism in the world at large. All the characters in World War Z are “minor characters” in this sense, and while they retain their humanity, their very numerousness points toward the undead beings Pride and Prejudice and Zombies calls “unmentionables,” who rank below even the servants of Netherfield Hall in their minorness.

The Zombie Survival Guide is even more unusual and impressive than World War Z. It makes a rigorous, obsessively detailed attempt to think through all the contingencies that might attend an actual zombie plague, including the relative advantages of different kinds of refuge, methods of concealment, militia organization, and weapons. It categorizes threat levels, sorts through the evidence of possible previous zombie attacks in the historical record, and ventures into finer points of zombie anatomy, all based on an authoritative distillation of the zombie genre initiated by Romero, presented now as sober fact:

Too often, the undead have been said to possess superhuman powers: unusual strength, lightning speed, telepathy, etc. Stories range from zombies flying through the air to their scaling vertical surfaces like spiders. While these traits might make for fascinating drama, the individual ghoul is far from a magical, omnipotent demon. Never forget that the body of the undead is, for all practical purposes, human. What changes do occur are in the way this new, reanimated body is used by the now-infected brain.

In the thoroughness of its vision and the obvious effort that went into its making, the Survival Guide is the opposite of the carelessness of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Calling above all for discipline and vigilance in the face of the zombie threat, it manages at once to be creepily survivalist and paranoid in its political mood and to parody that mood. Think of it as a kind of surreal rejoinder to the 1971 Anarchist Cookbook, in which William Powell taught how to make pipe bombs and other items useful to the revolution. In the early ’70s, when Powell’s book was published, it could be taken for granted that these technical matters served the higher purpose of social transformation. Now it’s all about hunkering down. As the recent movie Zombieland also makes clear, to survive you’ve got to follow certain rules. (Rule number one: cardio.) Brooks’s Survival Guide is one of the more interesting artifacts of our contemporary historical Endarkenment. It is a fiction that does without fictional characters altogether.

So: Zombies are anti-characters, but they do make for good allegories, their very flatness propelling us into speculation about what they might mean “on another level.” Since one thing they mean on that other level would seem to be “flatness” itself, it will not do to criticize zombies for being stiff and uninteresting, as allegorical characters have been for at least a few hundred years. When James Wood, in a critique of Thomas Pynchon, complains that his characters “do not move us, because they are not human; they are the serfs of allegory,” he is echoing an anti-allegorical tradition extending all the way back to Coleridge. It’s no doubt true that characters designed to represent some hoary abstraction, like Prudence or Piety or Charity, have trouble holding the attention of jaded modern readers. But Angus Fletcher notes that modern allegory is rarely as stiff as this. Critics of allegory, he complains, “have not sought positively for the things that allegory does well,” attacking this “protean procedure . . . in order to praise some other procedure they prefer.” His 1964 classic, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode, argued that its intellectual virtues are too essential to be dissolved into realism and that its most vivid modern manifestations are to be found in genre fiction. Above all, in a way that realism rarely does, allegory gives us a kind of vivid speculative access to the superhuman designs, whether spiritual or natural, that structure consciousness from without. This is especially true of science fiction and horror. These designs may constitute the ultimate reality, in comparison to which ordinary experience is only a kind of dream, but when they are rotated into the space of representation they can look very “unrealistic” indeed. Their realism is what we might call a speculative realism.

In the tradition of realism as we have it from Austen and James, by contrast, the worth of one’s ideas can only be measured in their experience. Ideas unhinged from complex experiences are undead abstractions. An allegorist might respond that the ideas of literary realism are typically as “flat” as the characters of genre fiction are purported to be. It wasn’t for nothing that T. S. Eliot complimented James on having a “mind so fine no idea could violate it.” And Philip Rahv had a point when, in his great essay “The Cult of Experience,” he accused James of a certain anti-intellectualism, outrageous as that sounds. All of the ideas in realist fiction on the Jamesian model are made subservient to the experience of thinking them. For all the intelligence exerted in their articulation, they are never valuable or interesting in and of themselves.

For allegory it is the reverse. There the court of personal experience is not the highest one in the land, much as we might wish it were. At the same time, as one would expect, allegory has learned a lot from realism over the years, and now rarely appears in so rigid a form as one finds it in Pilgrim’s Progress. In fact, literary “allegories” per se barely exist anymore, having been absorbed as a tendency in the novel, a counterweight to its cult of experience. In writers like Pynchon and Toni Morrison, this counterweight is what allows the novel to engage in genuinely historical thinking, inviting readers to ponder character as a mark in the historical record, a marker of position in an incredibly complex but to some degree conceptually navigable system. In the literature of zombies it is not so much history as the darker truths of modern science that motivate the allegorical device, though, to be sure, it encodes a nihilistic political science as well, in which the best one can hope for is to be one of the survivors.

Once upon a time the designs of allegory were understood by direct reference to theology, and more than a hint of end-of-days religiosity remains in recent evocations of the otherwise secular zombie “apocalypse.” Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is the best known and certainly the classiest example, trading up from the zombie to realistic-seeming depictions of postnuclear cannibals who want to eat a suspiciously Jesus-like boy. But look closely, notes Fletcher, and you will see that modernity brings about a basic reversal in the direction that allegory now tends to move. What used to take us higher toward celestial structures now takes us downward to the physical truths that determine our organic being and give it a hard deadline. McCarthy’s high seriousness as a writer has always coincided with a certain attraction to genre—in his case the western—but in a way the “badness” of actual genre fiction, the kind that never wins big literary awards, is a more authentic expression of our lowly, pulpy state. Real zombie stories are more honest about our essential stupidity than works like The Road, drowning out the last yelps of human pride in the tide of their own mediocrity.

If science could ever complete the task of explaining the world, the low allegories of genre fiction would no longer be necessary. The convergent narratives of personal experience and external design would finally collapse into one. While this is a mostly depressing or tragicomic prospect, a utopian dimension remains in the wondrous realization that, come a “phase shift” in the ecological and social systems we inhabit, the nature of our world will drastically change. As when, in Max Brooks, the starkly depopulated post-WWZ world turns to Cuba as the engine of the renewal of global commerce—it having come through the apocalypse surprisingly well.

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