Zombie novel offers both brains, heart

The zombie apocalypse is such a played out trope in pop culture that I’m surprised we don’t greet each new arrival with a collective eye roll. Been there, seen that. Yawn. Next! But any phenomenon that gains this much attention is bound to produce some winners, and Isaac Marion’s “Warm Bodies” is one such piece.

It’s rare in the world of zombie literature because its narrator, R, is a zombie. He can’t remember much about being alive, but he can relive moments by consuming — what else — brains.

The zombies of this world have built a kind of society, despite their rotting bodies and limited capacity for language or emotion. R is still human enough to desire connection with others — he marries a fellow zombie and they adopt zombie “children” — but, save his friendship with the articulate and witty M, all interactions between zombies are unfulfilling and flat. They stumble around each other trying to remember how to feel.

Things change dramatically when R and his friends find a troupe of human soldiers sent from the stadium settlement. R lives the memories of a young man named Perry, including his intense love affair with his girlfriend Julie, who is also on the mission.

After the moment has passed, R retains a shadow of Perry’s feelings for Julie, and refuses to let any other zombies touch her. He takes her to an abandoned 747 jet and keeps her there, bringing her human food and falling in love with her.

Julie, in turn, overcomes her fear and hostility and begins to see that he isn’t like the zombies she’s always imagined. Through each other, they really start to see what it means to be alive.

The strength of Marion’s writing is his narration. R is a vicious killer, but he’s also a developed character in his own right. He is kind, sensitive and funny. Marion does not  rely on zombie stereotypes to build tension, but subverts them in an interesting way.

“Warm Bodies” is not a novel interested in action, though there is action in it; it is interested in people and the ways people recover after disaster. Living people build isolated militaristic cities, and zombies develop culture after a fashion, including a violent parody of religion. They fight not to survive but because it is all they know how to do.

“Warm Bodies” is a very smart book. It contains humorous references to literature and film — the things the zombies remember after death are often surprising. There is reason to laugh on almost every page. It also pays homage to a classic play by Shakespeare about a blood feud — “R” and “Julie” are your hints there, although Marion’s version turns out differently.

Under the dark humor and unembellished prose is a moving story. R is a likable guy who just happens to be a zombie, and it’s easy to understand why Julie would fall for him. This is a zombie novel that not only has brains, but also a far more important organ — heart.

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