When it comes to romanticizing the undead, vampires are winning. There’s something implicitly sexual about a bite on the neck — cf. Edward Cullen — but it’s hard to play up the seductiveness of a crowd of rotting corpses that want to eat your flesh. With little hope of zombies ever being sexy, UCA writing professor Robin Becker has picked up on the next best thing — smart zombies.
The hero of her debut novel, “Brains: A Zombie Memoir” ($13.99, paperback, HarperCollins), which hit shelves May 25, is a college professor named Jack Barnes who doesn’t fare so well when the zombie apocalypse comes around. Once undead, however, he discovers that he has retained all his previous knowledge and can control (somewhat) his craving for brains, unlike the rest of his mindless ilk. He decides to make a pilgrimage to Chicago, where the creator of the zombie virus lives, to prove his sentience and beg for a cure. Along the way he rounds up a crew of similarly gifted ghouls, and his mission becomes hinged on the need to demonstrate that the living dead are people too, especially the ones who can still think for themselves.
At 182 pages, it’s not a long book, but “Brains” crams in quite a bit. On the surface, it’s a plain old zombie story that, despite having zombies who can write and shoot guns, should please anyone who’s a fan of George A. Romero. Of course, a zombie apocalypse can be about more than just hordes of the staggering undead ambushing tasty victims; it can be about conformity, humanity’s inability to react well to large-scale catastrophes and teamwork. Becker, adopting the zombie point of view, goes even further: It can be about a misunderstood minority. By the end of “Brains,” it’s a story about civil rights and solidarity. Protagonist Barnes doesn’t just want to chew on your brains — he wants to sound his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
Fortunately, there isn’t so much barbaric yawping going on that the book becomes preachy. Written in a terse style reminiscent of Chuck Palahniuk, “Brains” crackles with irreverent jokes, one-liners and zombie neologisms (among the cleverer ones, “zombeteriat”). It’s also stacked high with pop culture references. Strung back and forth are lists of movies, brands, music, celebrities and writers, as though Becker wants her characters to feel at home in their post-apocalyptic world.
Cluttered with pop culture as it is, Becker makes sure to weigh her book down with enough serious stuff. There are a few feminist jabs here and there, and the occasional ontological doubts — “What if being undead is better than death itself?” Barnes finds himself pondering his empty-headed but egalitarian new species, glad that he remained cognizant and concerned about the future of zombiehood faced with extinction at the hands of the living. Ultimately this is what “Brains” is about: the humanization of zombies.
OK, so maybe they don’t need to be humanized; like any other horror monster, they can only stray so far outside the confines of their tropes before the audience realizes how silly they actually are. Edward Cullen might not be Count Dracula, but he’s still a vampire. Even so, by making her zombies a little more like us, regardless of their uncontrollable appetite for our gray matter, Becker reminds us of our own humanity. Before he is turned into lunch, a radio DJ from “Brains” warns his listeners that “zombies are us, our true selves.” Could it be that we are all zombies, caught up in the soulless whirlwind of our pop culture? A stretch, maybe. But as Barnes’s wife notes, right before he makes the transition to the undead, “Hell is other zombies.”