SURELY EVERYONE knows that our mass consumption of media, in which everything heady is dialed down for easy access, would lead to the compromise of our cultural integrity—a great, gruesome sacrifice on the altar of the Church of Michael Bay. In this new religion, the complexity, subtleties, and charm of the human experience are drowned out amid the din of a thousand indistinguishable Transformers. Those awkward moments between a teenage boy and girl are foregone for the melodrama of a conflict between vampires and werewolves. Even Alan Moore’s sordid interpretation of comic book archetypes, the moral decline of a nation grown fat, and our generation’s own cult-like celebrity worship are reduced to slow-motion fist fights and dalliance in soft-core pornography. The visceral is chased away by a vulgar onslaught of cheap fixes and instant gratification. And now, at the arguable height of the shallow, in waltzes a hastily-sewn-together parody with endless marketing potential—but the joke’s on us.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Quirk Books, 2009) is not a re-telling of Jane Austen’s social comedy. In fact is more than 75 percent of the original text, though meatier sections have been trimmed to streamline the story’s momentum. But spliced into the iconic exchanges between the Bennetts, the Bingleys, and Mr. Darcy are what we might call “deleted scenes”: a series of side-plots involving a strange plague that has infected the rotten corpses of long-dead citizens of England. It spreads through bites and the affected “Unmentionables” can only be dispatched by martial arts. Elizabeth Bennett and Lady Catherine, it turns out, bothhold claim to the title of “most formidable student of the deadly arts,” promising the eruption of a deadly rivalry. In the words of Optimus Prime: “One shall stand, one shall fall.”
At first glance, it would seem that “co-author” Seth Grahame-Smith has simply capitalized on Austen’s timeless success. Devoted readers and sanctimonious literary critics alike could easily suppose that Smith has, in some way, pissed on the grave of one of the most beloved female authors in history in a bid to cash an impressive check. But the book’s marketing and release have themselves made a biting commentary of our own culture, in much the same way Austen took on English class hierarchy with wit and rose-colored disbelief. While the original text illuminated a series of misunderstandings that frequently arose from social distinctions, in turn criticizing the structures which bred the conflict and indirectly arguing for a number of changes to the class system, Zombies takes a jab at the shameless A.D.D. artistry and cheap consumerism that arises out of the American need for instant gratification.
In Smith’s promises that Zombies transforms Austen’s “masterpiece of world literature into something you’d actually want to read,” and press materials that declare Austen “unavailable for media contact,” Pride and Prejudice and Zombies becomes a calculated twist on our own media-saturated, nothing-as-sacred/everything-as-entertainment approach to … well, everything. Since the “zombie literature” fad hasn’t completely died down yet (particularly in light of the super-serious World War Z), the timing is perfect to lovingly poke at how shallow we can often be as both consumers and connoisseurs. In this way, it actually rises above the fray of other works of “serious literature,” not on its merits as a written piece (although the way in which Austen’s prose blends so easily with Smith’s, as if they were meant for each other, is notable), but as a media event of sorts – the written equivalent of Stephen Colbert running for President or Sacha Baron Cohen donning the blonde highlights of an impossibly, flamboyant gay “activist.”
If you’re wondering where I got all this, it’s a matter of subtext. The novel itself is pretty much what we’d expect: Elizabeth and Darcy fall in love, despite a number of misconceptions about one another, which only strengthens their affections when the curtain is pulled back. Meanwhile, characters battle an endless swarm of the reanimated dead in a number of predictably grim conflicts. It’s an age-old story: save the world, save time for tea.
The action kicks off in the novel’s first of a series of balls, around which much of the social interaction and the occasional riff about male genitalia takes place. The Bennett daughters proudly save their guests from an onslaught of the deadly scourge, a scene complete star-throwing, muskets, and the occasional roundhouse kick. Another bright spot is the demise of one Penny McGregor, who has her skull licked clean by one particularly nasty Unmentionable while Mr. Collins and the girls look on in horror. Fortunately, Elizabeth has the presence of mind to set them all ablaze with a little oil and Collins’ pipe—a “gift from Lady Catherine!” he exclaims in horror. It’s a perfect blockbuster movie, honestly—completely unbelievable but delivered with a certain modicum of immediacy that both amuses and distracts from the gaping plot holes and anachronisms inherent in a project like this.
Down the pipeline is the September release of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Coupled with the steady sales of Zombies, it’s quite possible that “hijacked literature” will become a fad of its own. But it’s unlikely that the copycats and follow-ups will display the same careful consternation toward pop culture, not to mention that subsequent attempts will suffer from fading novelty. And where’s the fun in that?
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