As my friends will attest, I like zombies. Zombie films, zombie games, zombie novels, zombie makeup and zombie women. As such I looked forward to reading Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion. It is generally described as a zombie romance (zom-rom with hints of com) about a zombie who becomes more self aware as he falls in love, and comes to question aspects of his lifestyle (and that of other zombies). And as with most zombie works, it therefore isn't really about zombies at all. They exist as a mirror held up to contemporary society, a rotting subject matter hiding wider themes which become more visible as the flesh is stripped away.
Here's an example where the novel could really be about 21st century western society: the protagonist, 'R', has existential yearnings for something more than his traditional zombie wife and two kids, wanting a bigger picture than wandering the airport forever, his pointless un-life torn between eating meat and wasting time. But he doesn't know what he wants, what is missing from his consumerist and conventional lifestyle, only that he is numbed to the pain and damage it inflicts.
Does that sound familiar? What about the battle lines that get drawn up: those without flesh ('boneys') in the zombie compound represent authoritarian conservatives, like religious leaders in a fundamentalist state. In the human compounds they are parallelled by an authoritarian and emotionless military which hides secrets from the populace. Neither group wants change from the war they are in: they only want to destroy the other group, and they see everything as justified in acting towards that goal. By the final scenes the two groups have almost become one in their Mutually Assured Destruction: "I stare at Grigio and the skeleton in rapt horror [...] in that other-worldly light, their figures are indistinguishable."
I'm always pleased when the generally sidelined issue of human overpopulation is acknowledged, so this speech from the novel got my thumbs up:
"What's amazing to me," Nora says, squeezing past the strained belly of a morbidly pregnant woman, "is that despite all these needs and shortages we have, people keep pumping out kids. Flooding the world with copies of themselves just because that's tradition, that's what's done. [...] And even though we're about to starve to death under a mountain of poopy diapers, no one's brave enough to even suggest that people keep their seed in their nuts for a while."It makes a good companion piece to the video I embedded in this blog post.
So the novel contains a mixture of satire, romance, action, and philosophical musings on our nature. It should be noted - for those that might be put off zombie literature by not liking horror novels - that there is no horror here, in a conventional sense. However, there is comedy. After all, zombies are (over)ripe for deadpan humour. The novel opens with: "I am dead, but it's not so bad. I've learned to live with it." Shortly afterwards: "My friend 'M' says the irony of being a zombie is that everything is funny, but you can't smile, because your lips have rotted off." I don't think this will give anyone bad dreams.
If this has sparked your interest then go and read it. In writing this I have just realised that it is now going to be a film too, for those who don't like squiggles on paper or screens. Just as zombies usually conquer the world, so they are conquering every genre of fiction, including the classics.