Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Prose and Parody and Zombies


I could probably let that one word serve as my review for "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies."  That would be cheating, though.  Hm... perhaps a better review would be "Bwahahaha!"

First of all, I don't think I'll need to include any spoilers tags at all within this review.  That's the beauty of the title: it tells you everything you need to know.  I also suspect that everyone who reads this book will enjoy it.  If, when you first heard that someone was re-writing "Pride and Prejudice" with scenes of bone-crunching zombie mayhem, your immediate thought was, "Oooh!" or "Awesome!" you will LOVE this book.  If you first thought was "Ew!" or "How dare they!", well, I doubt you'll make it past the first scene where Elizabeth and Jane decapitate a score of the ravenous undead.

What's most impressive, though, is how GOOD it is.  I was expecting a farce, or at best a parody, and ended up with something really well-written.  And not just because of Jane Austen's original text... even the modified bits are quite well-done.

OK... this is already chaotic, so I think I'll need to bring some structure to this write-up.  Let's look at what works dramatically, what works humorously, and what doesn't work.  Ready, set, go!

As awful as it may sound when I say it, there are some ways in which PPZ actually works better than PP.  For example, certain events in the original book just didn't make a whole lot of sense, like why any woman would WANT to marry Mr. Collins, or what the King's regimental army was doing kicking countryside estates during peacetime.  Answers are finally, helpfully supplied.  Mr. Collins is the one person dumb enough and self-centered enough to marry a zombie bride without realizing it; and, the regimental army is in the English countryside as a desperate barrier between Satan's damned army and the (largely) helpless citizenry.

The overall arcs of the book are almost entirely unchanged from the original.  Darcy and Liz still meet at a ball and form instant opinions of one another; Darcy's opinion of Liz quickly changes, while Liz's attitude towards Darcy takes most of the book to resolve itself.  Jane and Mr. Bingley go through their roundabout engagement.  Wickham's dalliance and background are largely intact. 

The characters' personalities are also largely unchanged.  Liz is still feisty, intelligent, spirited, and proud; Darcy still reserved; Bingley and Jane are open and warm; Kitty and Lydia are flighty; Mrs. Bennett is amazingly obtuse and narrow-minded;and so on.  I was most pleased to see that Mr. Bennett, who is not only my favorite character from this book but also one of my favorite characters in English literature, kept his indefatigable wryness. 

The difference, then, is not so much in their essence as in their actions: in this book, Mr. Bennett had paid to send his five daughters to train in Shaolin, China, where they learned the deadly arts of zombie-slaying.  Darcy's aunt is a renowned combatant who is working on a serum that may help reverse the effects of the zombie plague.  And so on... to me, it felt less like a re-interpretation than an alternate universe.  If you took Jane Austen's characters, and dropped them into a situation where the newly buried dead would leap from their graves and seek succulent brains to feast upon, then you would expect them to react rather like they do here.

I haven't read PP in a decade, so my memory is a little fuzzy.  My impression is that PPZ doesn't drop any major plot lines, but does trim some of them.  Mary is hardly present at all in PPZ, while I think she had a bit more to do in PP.  The book as a whole seems to be about the same length, and you don't feel like anything was unnecessarily dropped - or, weirdly, like most was unnecessarily added.  Now, in terms of plot, yeah, it's hugely incongruous to read a scene where young couples are dancing in an elegant ballroom, when suddenly all the windows shatter as scores of zombies are drawn to the mass of warm living flesh, resulting in gory combat where zombies are torn apart and their limbs used to beat back the second wave of invaders.  But in terms of STYLE, it actually flows.  You get the same period English inflection, the same clever observational style, the same way of drawing attention to details by using purposely understated descriptions.  That's the most remarkable achievement of the book, and what elevates it from being just a clever idea to something that actually works as a book on its own terms.

Now, what works comically: first of all, the same thing: transporting the 20th-century popular horror genre of the zombie flick into the Regency period setting and writing style.  I'm a big fan of incongruity and non-sequitors, hence my admiration for Monty Python, the Marx Brothers, Robot Chicken, and anyone who doesn't force A to line up with B.  This seems to be a primal humor response in many of us: confronted with something that we can't explain, all we can do is get angry, ignore it, or laugh at it.  I gleefully follow the last path.

You also get a lot of 20th-century humor transplanted here.  It's almost all bathroom humor, but again, given the elegant setting and style - heck, the fact that this really is a comedy of manners - I laugh at things that I otherwise would not.  Simple example: Balls.  I honestly didn't think of this when I first read the book, but there are a lot of balls in PP.  This is a topic of some discussion: Darcy asks Liz if she likes balls, the sisters argue about whether big balls are better, people talk about how much fun balls are, and so on.  It's all really arch, and I shouldn't laugh, but I do. 

There's also a shocking amount of bodily fluids in this book.  A lot of it is bloody gore from the battle scenes, which I did.  However, a ton of it is vomit.  People vomit all the time, when they're upset, when they see something gross, when they're sick or worries.  And that vomit can make other people vomit.  I can totally visualize what the book is getting at, and have seen similar things on, say, Family Guy, but on the printed page it's more weird than anything.

I think there's also a lot more infidelity in PPZ than in PP.  I'm guessing that this was invented for the book, but it's also possible that there were some subtexts in the original that I didn't pick up on at the time which are gleefully exploited in the rewrite.

OK, finally, what doesn't work.  As noted above, some of the toilet humor didn't do much for me.  Which is a tough call to make, because I thought other toilet humor was hilarious.  Still, in general, when they're punching up PP by adding zombies, the results are generally good; when they're punching up PP by adding lots of vomit and incontinence, not so much.

The other thing is a bit harder to explain.  There's a kind of backstory about the girls' training in Shaolin, which is held to be more middle-class than training in Japan, where the TRULY go to learn zombie-slaying skills.  The book sets up this conflict between the two, and it's kind of present throughout the story, but at the same time it's a bit unsatisfying.  Elizabeth thinks of how she should give herself the Seven Cuts of Shame as taught by Master Liu when she has done some wrong; Darcy's aunt is proud of her ninjas - from Japan, of course - who do her bidding.  Now, in theory, bringing ninjas into a zombie book is an amazing stroke.  The only thing that could make it cooler, of course, would be if some of the undead turned out to be zombie pirates.  But it feels like a good idea wasted in execution.  You never get to see the ninjas fight the zombies; they're just spent in this stupid duel between the various Eastern traditions, and don't really go anywhere.  On the one hand, I think that we don't want to have TOO many ninja scenes - it would overshadow the rest of the story.  On the other hand, though, if you're going to put ninjas in the book, do something really awesome with them!

Ahem.  I can't believe that I'm arguing about ninjas and zombies.  What a WONDERFUL world we live in, folks!  Ahhh...

By now you've probably heard that there's a new book in the pipeline: Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters.  It isn't from the same author as PPZ.  I hope it's good, but honestly, it would be really, really hard to top this one.  Still, I do love the general idea of updating classics with bizarre new elements.  Imagine Wuthering Heights where werewolves stalk the moors, howling mournfully in the night, infecting Heathclif so his passion burns brighter than ever and he begins to destroy those he loves.  Or how about Ethan Frome, but where Ethan is a mad scientist, who creates automatous golem-like creatures to do his bidding, and eventually builds a rocket sled that allows him and his creations to escape the cruel grasp of his wife, who turns out to be an evil priestess of Cthulhu?  I'm telling you, the possibilities are endless!


  1. That would be an Ethan Frome I wouldn't be angry to read.

    How did you feel about the very end, with Elizabeth giving up her zombie killing ways to become Mrs Darcy?

    For me, that was one part of the new story that would have worked better if period gender roles were ignored or modernized.

  2. Yeah, good call... the very very end was a little disappointing. In general the zombies become less important to the narrative in the last part of the book, and the last couple of sentences make it clear that Elizabeth isn't even fighting them any more.

    That said, while story-wise it's unfortunate, the writing is actually really powerful. (Warning: ultimate spoilers.)
    "England remained in the shadow of Satan. The dead continued to claw their way through crypt and coffin alike, feasting on British brains. Victories were celebrated, defeats lamented. And the sisters Bennet-- servants of His Majesty, protectors of Hertfordshire, beholders of the secrets of Shaolin, and brides of death-- were now, three of them, brides of man, their swords quieted by that only force more powerful than any warrior."

    I think there's a big tension in the ending: zombie movies need to have depressing endings where the unstoppable monsters continue spreading their plague over the earth, while the Regency romance novel needs to end with the man and wife living marred together happily ever after. Seth manages to honor both legacies, which is a pretty neat trick.

  3. I hadn't considered satisfying both genre expectations with the ending. That really makes me reconsider my general dissatisfaction.