Max Brook’s World War Z
Choose any of the study questions to explore, using whatever evidence or research you think appropriate—or compose an original study question and answer it.
Choose One ONLY!!!
1. Who is Max Brooks? What can you learn about him and his family that might illuminate the novel in some way? A good starting place: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/23/magazine/max-brooks-is-not-kidding-about-the-zombie-apocalypse.html?_r=1&
2. For a novel that we might initially classify as a pop-culture formula novel (i.e., zombies take over the world!), this text is surprisingly ambitious, literary, and informed by history. After completing the novel, how would you describe the readerly shifts you had to make to get beyond the surface genre? What did the novel make you think about that you weren’t expecting to ponder? If we call this a “novel of ideas,” what ideas is it preoccupied with?
3. The zombie takeover is actively linked to different kinds of real disasters and cataclysms (or our active, realistic fear of them), through explicit analogies, through iconic imagery, through historical similarities, through survivor behavior, through metaphorical language, and in many implicit ways as well. For now, just to put these parallels on the table for further scrutiny, make a list of the various analogues or allusions that occurred to you when reading the novel. Keep in mind that Brooks seems to be using the language and cultural memory of many kinds of disasters in human history—military, medical, cultural, natural, nuclear, and more. List at least five specific analogues you see alluded to in the novel, with brief explanations of what made you see these links. (Examples: pandemics like the bubonic plague that decimated Europe in two waves, or the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19 that swept the world; genocides like the Armenian Genocide of 1915.)
4. Choose one of the historical allusions you identified in the previous question. In what ways does the novel develop or imply the parallel between it and the zombie plague? (Or, alternatively, what aspects of the novel make you think of the historical parallel?) Explore the implications of this connection. What might the novel be saying about such events, or about how “familiar” some elements of the zombie plague seem?
5. This is fiction, and about zombies, no less. And yet it is narrated with extreme care and realism; it seems true. Its genius is in its convincingness, elaborately constructed. What techniques did Brooks use to create this verisimilitude? What techniques did he borrow from documentaries and journalism? What other conventions did he borrow from other genres, even other media, for his story-telling purposes? What narrative strategies did he use that make you almost convinced you are reading a highly informed historical account?
6. Among other well-developed subtexts, Brooks uses the language of infection, viruses, and contamination to describe the spread of the zombies. Why? Explore the implications (and symbolism) of this model of transmission. Can you think of other—real—consequences of human contact that spread by a kind of “infection”? Could this be a metaphor for deadly ideas?? What happens when you imagine Nazi ideology, or racism, apartheid, or rationales for ethnic cleansing in a similar light? (Ask: What turns people into metaphorical zombies? What does it mean to be a zombie instead of a person? What is lost? Why are zombies so dangerous? See what happens when you plug “Nazi” into the equation in place of “zombie,” for example.) How does this lens affect the way you read the novel, especially its intimations that the zombie plague is never fully contained and can resurge at any time?
7. It appears that the interviews documented in the novel reflect a search for truth. What motivates this search? What kinds of truths matter the most in the end? What questions does it seek answers to? What kind of “history” is it an attempt to construct? (i.e., what model of “history” is understood?) What factors work to fragment this history and destabilize its truths? What lacunae (voids) remain despite hundreds of interviews? Analyze the structure and interview format of the novel to arrive at some critical insights into its underlying agendas. What might the novel be saying, indirectly, about the nature of history and our understanding of it? Try to extrapolate from your insights into the novel to insights about the real world.
8. The novel constructs several shorthand references to complex narratives: “Yonkers,” “Redeker Plan” (or “South African Plan”), the “Honolulu Conference,” etc. Identify one such code word and explain why it becomes such an important touchstone in the novel. What is captured in the subtext of the passages that focus on or refer to these subjects?
9. This disaster novel has a global scope—and a well-researched one. It tends to decenter our convenient American view of the world, downplaying the U.S. as the most powerful, wisest, or most advanced nation. (Some Americans even become “boat people”!) Show how this decentering occurs throughout the novel and what the globalized lens makes visible. What unexpected inversions do you notice? (For example, how is Cuba characterized?) What actions or values that we associate with Americans come under scrutiny?
10. The novel has a strong intertextual relationship to John Hersey’s non-fiction book Hiroshima, which you may already be familiar with. It seems likely that Brooks was influenced by Hiroshima’s interview format, the focus on selected survivors, and the use of multiple retrospective perspectives (clinical, personal, military, etc.) to tell the human story of a man-made disaster. Develop this intertextual analysis in more specific ways, or identify another text that can be linked in some primary way to WWZ. Explore the implications of these juxtapositions.
11. Who is the interviewer? (Not Brooks….) Describe him. What is his role? What traits or unconscious assumptions about him are revealed by his choices? Where do you learn something about him? (Consider his questions, his footnotes, what else?) What kind of document does the novel become based on seeing this interviewer at work? (If you know Tim O’Brien’s novel In the Lake of the Woods, you might see some similarities.)
12. Despite the direness of the subject matter, and its clinical grotesquerie, this novel has a deeply comic strain. Identify some examples of the comic eye Brooks applies to his subject matter, and try to describe the source of that comedy. (What’s funny about universal destruction? Where do you find yourself laughing? What are some of the things Brooks is spoofing?)
13. The novel assumes a very attentive and engaged reader. How do you know? What specifically does the novel demand of the reader? (One thing to consider: there is lots and lots of cross-referencing in the narrative, and it assumes the reader will make these connections. Why put that burden on the reader of a zombie novel??) What do these demands tell you about Brooks’ larger purposes?
14. Ponder this interesting “fact” about zombies: they are us. They look like us, they have been us, they are all around us, we could become a zombie. In symbolic terms, what does it mean for people to be both “normal” and zombie material? In this vein, what do zombies represent about our species, our psyches, our darkest inner lives, and our fears of the things we can’t conquer (those frightening monsters under the bed)??
15. Brooks has created an entire universe of zombiana (which, in fact, spills over into other books and encyclopedias). We learn all sorts of arcane “facts” about zombies and about the world (alternative present? near future??) where they have taken over and been barely contained. He also creates an elaborate set of institutions, projects, infrastructures, cities, scientific and military experts, and much more to populate this fantasy world. It is a wholly constructed universe. The problem is that it is stitched firmly into our own world, and we don’t always know where the boundaries are. Are all the acronyms made up, or are some of them borrowed from real life? Do the interview subjects resemble people we would recognize, under different names? How would you describe the universe Brooks has created and its relationship to our familiar world? What are the implications of these connections?
16. Choose one of the interview subjects who appears more than once. Review these passages. Write an argument about what role this “character” plays in the novel, and how Brooks uses his/her sections not just to advance a plot but to underscore some important themes of the novel.
17. Here is the list of analogues and historical allusions that came to me as I read this novel the first time: global natural disasters (volcanic eruptions that poison the air, earthquakes, floods, asteroids that destroy most of the earth, etc,), man-made disasters (nuclear war, global warming, Chernobyl, Hiroshima, toxic spills and emissions like Bhopal, etc.), genocides (the Holocaust, the Ugandan genocide, Pol Pot, the Armenian Genocide, etc.), pandemics and germ scares (MERS, AIDS, Bird Flu, the plague), slavery and apartheid, PTSD, ….. You probably see several things from your own list from question #3 above. Choose something outside your own list and explore this as an analogy to the rise of the zombies. If the novel were a commentary on something like this analogue, what would it be highlighting? What are the novels’ themes in such a context? Use textual evidence to support your observations.
18. Because the Holocaust looms so large over the novel–especially as an analogue to the zombie takeover in the novel–if you choose to develop this connection, consider the novel’s appropriation of concepts, terms, and imagery from the Holocaust—i.e., the language of infection and infestation (which was applied to the Jews in Nazi Germany), “final solutions,” “selections,” concentration camps, refugees, ash, transports, black vans, survivor discourse, the expiration of first-person witnesses. What is complicated about this analogy?? What do you see in Brooks’ personal preoccupations or family history that might explain this pervasive set of allusions?
19. There are countless references to Hollywood, movies, agents, propaganda, and other elements of media culture, especially cinematic culture. This is not surprising, given the author’s experience (and father’s place in the entertainment industry). Show how these function as part of a subtext about the role of the media in shaping public opinion, in critiquing authority or legitimizing it, and/or expressing human hopes and fears. Use specific passages to support your insights.
20. This novel does not give us a consistent bad guy/good guy code, since zombies are actually (formerly) us. This complicates our sense of what Brooks might be saying. The zombies are the vicious predators, but we understand they are also hapless victims. So this thwarts efforts to turn the novel into a neat allegory–e.g. the zombies represent Nazis and their human prey corresponds to the Jews the Nazis tried to annihilate. Talk about how Brooks muddies the distinction between zombies and uninfected people, and how he often treats zombies with unexpected sympathy, or locates them in narratives that would evoke sympathy. (A quick example: notice how the South African Plan to deal with the black majority positions zombies as symbolic targets of virulent racism.) He also demonstrates how often leaders with good intentions are exposed as deeply evil or misguided. Brooks has created a moral universe that is complex and decidedly gray. Show how this principle plays out through specific examples, and venture some conclusions about what the text ends up communicating about the human species.
21. Here are some themes and motifs the novel develops in a variety of ways: fear of extinction, zenophobia (fear of The Other), the limits of science and technology (and the malicious uses thereof), the war between our humane selves and our predatory selves, the critique of corrupt governments and bureaucracies, the idea of understanding or seeing truths “too late,” the power of Groupthink, the loaded image of “cracking skulls open.” Choose one to develop an argument about.
22. Why might we be so fascinated by the idea of zombies, vampires, Frankensteins, Golems, and other monsters that often look like us?
23. Let’s say you were charged with introducing this novel to a college class of English majors. They have read the novel, but you want to focus their attention in specific ways beyond matters of plot and character identification. Create a lesson guide or outline that would structure several lectures about the novel. Aim for about five major topics to explore, and show how you would explore them.
24. Find a significant but specific angle of comparison to develop with a) another disaster novel, b) a historical/non-fiction account of a disaster (or plague, catastrophe, etc.), or c) a documentary based on survivor interviews. Explain similarities and differences with the intent of illuminating something significant about our novel.
25. Even though this novel is about ghastly violence and the dark recesses of the human psyche, it is also deeply humane in its perspective. Using this as a thesis statement, write a short essay arguing this point. Use specific textual evidence (and outside research, as you see fit) to support your points. You may be able to draw on things you have learned in other classes—history, psychology, sociology, etc.
26. What non-literary scholarship would you draw on to help you navigate this novel and its complexities?