Zombies. High school. Put them together and what do you get?
Generation Dead by Daniel Waters.
Waters takes what could be a pretty lame idea and crafts a remarkable book. Far from being your average brain-hungry living dead trash, the novel is what all of the best zombie works are – from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, to Max Brooks’s World War Z, to Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, to the film Fido – a work that aspires to be far more than zombies on a rampage, but a work of social and cultural critique or satire.
And that’s a awesome cover, huh? (Be sure to read Waters’ funny discussion of the cover).
For an unknown reason teenagers in the United States have begun returning to life after they’ve died. Coming back in varying degrees of functionality, the “differently biotic,” as they’ve been labeled for political correctness, are attempting to fit in with the rest of the world. Oakvale High, in a bold and progressive move, has started accepting them back into their classrooms, though many need to enter remedial courses because of their lower brain functions. Perhaps even more bold and progressive, however, is goth-girl Phoebe’s interest in “living impaired” boy Tommy.
What results is on one hand a fantastic coming-of-age story centered on Phoebe, her friend Adam, the jock-bully Pete, and Tommy. These are teenagers, with teenage problems. With an omniscient point of view, we get to experience the thoughts and feelings of all of the living kids. We experience the unrequited love and sense of protection Adam has for Phoebe, as well as his quiet jealousy over Tommy; the rage and anguish Pete feels because his girlfriend died and did not return to the living; and Phoebe’s general confusion about her feelings for boys, both living and dead.
On the other hand the novel is a brilliant examination of prejudice and integration which echoes the desegregation of schools in the late 1950s. Tommy joins the football team only to meet public protest and a near riot at the high school. Stories of zombie lynchings across the country fueled by revelatory religious rhetoric, and/or pure hate, provide a darker backdrop. The fears of Phoebe’s usually open-minded parents put a very personal note on things when she tells them she is going to a dance with Tommy, and show that even the most tolerant people can harbor deep-seated prejudices.
The course at the Hunter Foundation which the students attend to create “differently biotic” awareness, dispersal of information, and foster understanding and acceptance of the dead amongst the living, provides a look into a very modern way of dealing with prejudice and hate. The Hunter Foundation provides a mixed (living and dead) forum of teens that can share their life (and death) experiences.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Hunter Foundation is when Skip Slydell, public speaker and corporate mogul, speaks to the class and hawks zombie merchandise (supposedly to force public awareness and cultural change), such as t-shirts saying “DEAD…AND LOVING IT!,” “OPEN GRAVES, OPEN MINDS,” and “ZOMBIE POWER!” which become best-selling products in Hot Topic-esque stores in the mall (sold right along side “Z,” a cologne that is part of a living dead hygiene line “for the active undead male”). It makes the reader seriously question how much overly zealous spokepersons for causes actually care about the cause, versus making a quick buck on behalf of the cause. The Hunter Foundation also at times seems quite sinister, for a supposedly benevolent institution, with references to augmentation experiments being performed on the “dead kids.” This happens to be the only fault I’ve found with the book because these experiments are never fully explored and ends up being a loose end (sequel, perhaps?).
Pete’s story and actions are perhaps some of the most thought-provoking because his hatred is derived from his sadness over the loss of Julie, the first girl he ever loved. He hates the zombies not because they are zombies, but because he was denied her return to life. You may want to hate Pete for what he does, but his motivations are far different from those who picket the school, or the drivers of the mysterious white vans that are abducting zombies nationwide.
All in all, a fantastic book. Read it if you like zombies. Read it if you like teen fiction and coming-of-age stories. Read it if you like social commentary. Read it if you just like good books.
Next book I’m reading:
Another living dead teenagers book, Zombie Blondes by Brian James, also mentioned in Daniel Waters’ blog and alongside Generation Dead in a recent NY Times review.