Greg Garrett: Living with the Living Dead

My own zombie study, Books of the Dead: Reading the Zombie in Contemporary Literature, should be forthcoming from University Press of Mississippi late this year or early next, but in the meantime, I want to say a few words on Greg Garrett’s new Living with the Living Dead: The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse, published this year with Oxford UP. Garrett is a Professor of English at Baylor University in Waco (“Baptist Harvard,” I think it’s sometimes referred to?). So, the book. It’s very good, and well worth your time.

The book is the second in which Garrett tries to “read culture for ultimate meanings” (217; the first being Entertaining Judgment, a book on the medial life of the idea of the afterlife; I’ve not read it), and it’s very good at what it does. Garrett’s purpose isn’t so much to elucidate the zombie (as a symbol, or a sign of our times), or any specific text (his chapters are structured by topic, not by text): what he does, and does well, is to take “stories of the Zombie Apocalypse seriously as vehicles for meaning and considering what those meanings might be” (19). What that means, for Garrett, is to read zombie stories as genuinely useful to readers, as offering some sort of guidance to living one’s everyday life, even absent an apocalypse (which, come to think of it, might kinda screw your everyday life anyhow).

Garrett’s book runs wildly and allusively over a somewhat narrow but quite unique corpus of returning texts, tying together scenes spread across the zombie canon to make its point about what zombie stories tell us about the nature of humanity, the good life, community, and other concerns. Garrett looks at some of the obvious choices—The Walking Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, World War Z, and the Romero films—but also at texts which are less often seen in zombie criticism—Game of Thrones, Marvel Zombies, Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy, and Afterlife with Archie, and even the atrocious Making of Zombie Wars. I was especially intrigued by the two comic entries in this latter list, which might easily fall under the rubric of pure commodity art, just another way of tacking “zombie” onto an already-existing property to make money, but which Garrett convincingly argues are rather more than that. Kudos to Garrett for this, if not for this only. Readers who are looking for someone to make sense of whether zombies are really good for anything, and then by extension what that something might be, will find here a way to parse it in such a way that it makes sense. Hey, zombies really do something useful in fiction!

Alas, this wouldn’t be a review, of course, if I didn’t have a modest amount of complaints. And my largest complaints, I think, are that while Garrett very convincingly outlines the broad strokes of the zombie’s usefulness, I miss two things in his book. The first is less vital: this is not a long book, and even though Garrett engages in close reading single scenes in the works he is interested in, such close reading remains too allusive sometimes. Columbus, in Zombieland, is alone (for a while at least), and so is Robert Neville in I am Legend; and maybe “alienation is […] a central theme” (88) in both; but it seems to me that it would have been useful to be more careful in outlining how these themes work differently, and are contextually different, in both of these texts (indeed, while I’m perfectly happy to be catholic about these things, I’m not quite sure the antagonists in I am Legend are, actually, “the living dead”). This isn’t a major deal, of course: Garrett’s strength really is these broad connections that let us see the trend lines of living dead fiction. But precisely because of this it sometimes reads slightly unfortunately, and some readers may be inclined to take it less seriously than it deserves because its readings sometimes seem to bend somewhat disparate things happening over different media into a recognizably similar shape. One thing that struck me in this regard, for example, is the way Garrett talks about community. He has a chapter on the way zombies remind us of the need for community, but to my mind, Garrett is somewhat blithe about the meaning of the term. Full disclosure: I have a chapter on community in my own book, and I struggled with the term’s philosophical provenance and especially its delimitation from other forms of being together; Garrett to my mind far too easily assumes something like collectivity, indeed simply “being with someone” equals community. Having done the research, it’s clear to me that the answer to the question of what is entailed in the search for community hinges heavily on the definition of community, and on realizing what it does and does not mean. So just because you’re looking for friends doesn’t really seem to me equate the rather complex question of what the meaning of community is. But your mileage may vary.

The second thing I’m actually slightly more concerned about: the question of the zombie’s (or even “any” undead’s) role in this. That’s to say: over the entire length of the book, the specificities of why it should be the zombie apocalypse, or indeed the zombie apocalypse, isn’t really addressed (and that’s granting that The Passage, with its incredibly powerful vampire-monsters, shares more with, say, Night of the Living Dead than it does not). Certainly, Garrett at times nods towards answers, such as suggesting that they are confrontations with Death as such, which you can’t really say isn’t true. But it’s also wildly unspecific, and ignores both the question of why Death itself should be rendered through zombies, as well as what the concrete consequences of imagining Death itself through the zombie bring to the foreground. In his conclusion, Garrett notes that the question he asked himself in beginning the book was “Why are zombies so popular” (213). The stress, I think, is “why are zombies so popular,” rather than “why are zombies so popular,” and the problem is that much of the book, while it answers the first question very well, and while it certainly focuses (though not exclusively) on zombie narratives, it essentially also, and unavoidably, simply asks “why are apocalyptic narratives so popular.” I’ve got my own answer in my book about what it is that makes the zombie so relevant to all this, and which for obvious reasons I’ll not give away here, but it looks to me that Garrett missed a chance here to deal with the specifics of the zombie as an apocalyptic form, which is different from the vampire, or the ecocatastrophe, or the dystopian science-fiction film, and so on.

But if this is my major complaint, it’s also one which is at last only minor. Garrett sets out to convince readers that the “living dead have something to tell you, and it may just save your life” (215). He does that, and he does it very well, in an endearingly written, knowledgeable, and utterly readable book.

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