Sometimes having a good idea just isn’t enough. This might hurt, but it’s the truth. For whatever reason, sometimes writers have amazing ideas that don’t pan out. And when those ideas stall mid-story, they take the entire book down with them.
In Brains: A Zombie Memoir, Jack Barnes is an English professor who gets bitten during the zombie apocalypse. After transforming, he discovers that he can still think and still feels like himself—aside from a craving for brains and human flesh. Also, he can still write (not too shabby for a decaying corpse), though he can’t speak. So Jack travels across the United States, gradually finding other “smart zombies” like himself, looking for the scientist who unwittingly unleashed the zombie virus on the world.
When I put it that way, Brains sounds downright intriguing. Who doesn’t want to hear about the zombie apocalypse from the zombie’s perspective? Much to my disappointment, Brains isn’t just bad; it’s terrible. It falls flat in almost every respect: characterization, plotting, and humour are all gruesomely murdered and resurrected as zombie versions of themselves. It’s been a while since I read a book as bad as this. I considered not finishing it, but at only 168 pages, I decided to stick it out until the bitter end.
The length alone is an early indication that the Robin Becker lacks enough story for a good story. After all, her premise is sound and exciting. But after Jack has been transformed and starts wandering across the country, Brains suddenly loses all sense of direction or even progress. So what that he’s going to find Howard Stein? So what that they’ve made it to Chicago? The book drags on and on, describing Jack’s newly found affinity for brains and how he’s drooling over Eve, the hot-but-stupid zombie, and I’m just waiting for something really interesting to happen or for real conflict to break out. Finally, with the pages rapidly running out, we reach a climax of sorts as Jack confronts his creator. But it’s actually very anticlimactic, because the end is not difficult to predict. To Becker’s credit, she tries to include revelations and ruminations that are deep and meaningful … but that doesn’t change the fact that I don’t really care whether Jack or his new zombie-friends survive.
I don’t read (or watch) much zombie fiction. Like the larger horror genre in general, it is not my cup of tea. I don’t find zombies very interesting as monsters. Whether they are the traditional shamblers or the new-school runners, zombies don’t impress me. Zombie stories tend to deliver two interconnected moral dilemmas: the cost of survival and the fate of a main character who has been bitten. It’s certainly possible to write excellent, creative zombie stories—still, most of the zombie stories I like tend to be the ones that parody or deconstruct the genre instead of playing it straight: Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland (although it played the genre straight to some extent) … Fido was really weird but had its moments. I enjoyed Feed and found it problematic in equal doses. (I notice now that I have a similar genre-generalizing paragraph in that review. Good to know I’m being consistent in my opinion of zombie fiction!) So a zombie book has to work harder to impress me, perhaps, than someone who is more invested and more forgiving of this genre. But Brains hardly seems to work at all.
This is mostly Jack’s fault. He’s an asshole, and he admits it. He claims dying has changed him for the better, but I disagree. I don’t think he’s any closer to having a soul now (if souls existed) or being a better person as a zombie: he goes around eating brains, biting people to turn them into zombies at a whim, and dropping pop culture references in an attempt to sound erudite and hip at the same time. His diction, I gather, is supposed to have a similar effect, and I suppose I can’t fault Becker for her ability to establish a voice for Jack. It’s just not a voice I like very much, and regardless of Becker’s intentions in this matter, it adversely affected my enjoyment of the book. Frankly, I had no emotional investment in zombie Jack or his great plans for his smart-zombie gang. The only zombie I cared about was Guts, because Becker managed to make him cute and endearing, but even that was only a surface affection on my part.
It is possible that I could have found it in myself to overlook Jack’s unsympathetic nature if Brains had a more compelling plot. Without going into too much detail, however, nothing interesting happens here. Brains is just … boring. With no reason to care about the main character and little interest in the thin plot, I had a difficult time making it through this short book. That’s a shame. There’s a reason we describe books as page-turners or non-stop action thrill-rides; we yearn for books that draw us into a wider universe beyond the story on the pages and make us salivate for knowledge of that universe. Described in such a florid way, perhaps it sounds like a tall order for a book that might claim to be some “light zombie fun”. I don’t think it is, which is why I’m being so hard on this book. Not only is Brains pointless, but it could be much better. I really like the main idea and wish it were better executed.
I’m not so convinced this is all Brains’ fault. The blurbs on the back of this book, which have no doubt been carefully selected to give an impression of agreement, all praise it along the same line. Using adjectives like “smart”, “snarky”, “witty”, and “clever”, these reviewers cast Brains as a “smart” book that taps into popular culture. This idea, that pop culture allusions and a sarcastic narrator are sufficient ingredients for a “smart” book, seems to be a literary myth of sorts. It conflates style with substance and rewards an empty feeling of currency over true depth and emotional impact. That’s not to say that all books that feel current or have lots of pop culture allusions are bad—but these alone do not a good story make. So Brains might be a “smart” book, but it’s a stupid story. If your decaying corpse is lusting after some ripe zombie fiction, look elsewhere—this feast is far from fresh.